What we like
Why the western media is afraid of Julian Assange | Jonathan Cook
This is the text of my talk at #FreeTheTruth: Secret Power, Media Freedom and Democracy, held at St Pancras Church, London, on Saturday 28 January 2023. Other speakers were former British ambassador Craig Murray and Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, author of the recent Secret Power: Wikileaks and its Enemies.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also presented the Gavin MacFayden award, the only media prize voted on by whistleblowers, to Julian Assange for being “the journalist whose work most exemplifies the importance of a free press”. Craig Murray accepted it on Assange’s behalf. Video of the event is embedded in the text below.
During an interview back in 2011, Julian Assange made an acute observation about the role of what he called society’s “perceived moral institutions”, such as liberal media:
What drives a paper like the Guardian or New York Times is not their inner moral values. It is simply that they have a market. In the UK, there is a market called “educated liberals”. Educated liberals want to buy a newspaper like the Guardian, and therefore an institution arises to fulfil that market… What is in the newspaper is not a reflection of the values of the people in that institution, it is a reflection of the market demand.
Assange presumably gained this insight after working closely the previous year with both newspapers on the Afghan and Iraq war logs.
One of the mistakes we typically make about the so-called “mainstream media” is imagining that its outlets evolved in some kind of gradual bottom-up process. We are encouraged to assume that there is at least an element of voluntary association in how media publications form.
At its simplest, we imagine that journalists with a liberal or leftwing outlook gravitate towards other journalists with a similar outlook and together they produce a liberal-left newspaper. We sometimes imagine that something similar takes place among rightwing journalists and rightwing newspapers.
All of this requires ignoring the elephant in the room: billionaire owners. Even if we think about those owners—and in general we are discouraged from doing so—we tend to suppose that their role is chiefly to provide the funding for these free exercises in journalistic collaboration.
For that reason, we infer that the media represents society: it offers a market place of thought and expression in which ideas and opinions align with how the vast majority of people feel. In short, the media reflects a spectrum of acceptable ideas rather than defining and imposing that spectrum.
Of course, if we pause to think about it, those assumptions are ludicrous. The media consists of outlets owned by, and serving the interests of, billionaires and large corporations—or in the case of the BBC, a broadcasting corporation entirely reliant on state largesse.
Furthermore, almost all corporate media needs advertising revenue from other large corporations to avoid haemorrhaging money. There is nothing bottom-up about this arrangement. It is entirely top-down.
Journalists operate within ideological parameters strictly laid down by their outlet’s owner. The media doesn’t reflect society. It reflects the interests of a small elite, and the national security state that promotes and protects that elite’s interests.
Those parameters are wide enough to allow some disagreement—just enough to make western media look democratic. But the parameters are narrow enough to restrict reporting, analysis and opinion so that dangerous ideas—dangerous to corporate-state power—almost never get a look-in. Put bluntly, media pluralism is the spectrum of allowable thought among the power-elite.
If this doesn’t seem obvious, it might help to think of media outlets more like any other large corporation—like a supermarket chain, for example.
Supermarkets are large warehouse-like venues, stocking a wide range of goods, a range similar across all chains, but distinguished by minor variations in pricing and branding.
Despite this essential similarity, each supermarket chain markets itself as radically different from its rivals. It is easy to fall for this pitch, and most of us do: to the extent that we start to identify with one supermarket over the others, believing it shares our values, it embodies our ideals, it aspires to things we hold dear.
We all know there is a difference between Waitrose and Tesco in the UK, or Whole Foods and Walmart in the U.S. But if we try to identify what that difference amounts to, it is hard to know—beyond competing marketing strategies and the targeting of different shopping audiences.
All the supermarkets share a core capitalist ideology. All are pathologically driven by the need to generate profits. All try to fuel rapacious consumerism among their customers. All create excessive demand and waste. All externalise their costs on to the wider society.
Media publications are much the same. They are there to do essentially the same thing, but they can only monetise their similarity by presenting—marketing—it as difference. They brand differently not because they are different, but because to be effective (if not always profitable) they must reach and capture different demographics.
Supermakets do it through different emphases: is it Coca-Cola or wine that serves as a loss-leader? Should green credentials and animal welfare be accentuated over value for money? It’s no different with the media: outlets brand themselves as liberal or conservative, on the side of the middle class or the unskilled worker, as challenging the powerful or respectful of them.
The key task of a supermarket is to create loyalty from a section of the shopping public to stop those customers straying to other chains. Similarly, a media outlet reinforces a supposed set of shared values among a specific demographic to stop readers from looking elsewhere for their news, analysis and commentary.
The goal of the corporate media is not unearthing truth. It is not monitoring the centres of power. It is about capturing readers. In so far as a media outlet does monitor power, does speak difficult truths, it is because that is its brand, that is what its audience has come to expect from it.
So how does this relate to today’s topic?
Well, not least it helps clarify something that baffles many of us. Why haven’t journalists risen up to support Julian Assange in their droves—especially once Sweden dropped the longest preliminary investigation in its history and it became clear that Assange’s persecution was, as he always warned, paving the way to his extradition to the U.S. for exposing its war crimes?
The truth is that, were the Guardian and the New York Times clamouring for Assange’s freedom;
had they investigated the glaring holes in the Swedish case, as Nils Melzer, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, did;
were they screaming about the dangers of allowing the U.S. to redefine journalism’s core task as treason under the draconian, century-old Espionage Act;
had they used their substantial muscle and resources to pursue Freedom of Information requests, as Stefania Maurizi did on her own dime;
were they pointing out the endless legal abuses taking place in Assange’s treatment in the UK;
had they reported—rather than ignored—the facts that came to light in the extradition hearings in London;
in short, had they kept Assange’s persecution constantly in the spotlight, he would be free by now.
The efforts by the various states involved to gradually disappear him over the past decade would have become futile, even self-sabotaging.
At some level, journalists understand this. Which is precisely why they try to persuade themselves, and you, that Assange isn’t a “proper” journalist. That’s why, they tell themselves, they don’t need to show solidarity with a fellow journalist—or worse, why it is okay to amplify the security state’s demonisation campaign.
By ignoring Assange, by othering him, they can avoid thinking about the differences between what he has done and what they do. Journalists can avoid examining their own role as captured servants of corporate power.
Assange faces 175 years in a maximum-security prison, not for espionage but for publishing journalism. Journalism doesn’t require some special professional qualification, as brain surgery and conveyancing do. It does not depend on precise, abstruse knowledge of human physiology or legal procedure.
At its best, journalism is simply gathering and publishing information that serves the “public interest”. Public: that is, it serves you and me. It does not require a diploma. It does not require a big building, or a wealthy owner. Whisper it: any of us can do journalism. And when we do, journalistic protections should apply.
Assange excelled at journalism like no one before him because he devised a new model for forcing governments to become more transparent, and public servants more honest. Which is precisely why the elite who wield secret power want him and that model destroyed.
If the liberal media was really organised from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, journalists would be incensed—and terrified—by states torturing one of their own. They would be genuinely afraid that they might be targeted next.
Because it is the practice of pure journalism that is under attack, not a single journalist.
But that isn’t how corporate journalists see it. And truth be told, their abandonment of Assange—the lack of solidarity—is explicable. Journalists aren’t being entirely irrational.
The corporate media, especially its liberal outlets and their journalist-servants, understand that Assange’s media revolution—embodied by Wikileaks—is far more of a threat to them than the national security state.
Difficult home truths
Wikileaks offers a new kind of platform for democratic journalism in which secret power, along with its inherent corruptions and crimes, becomes much harder to wield. And as a result, corporate journalists have had to face some difficult home truths they had avoided till Wikileaks’ appearance.
First, the Wikileaks media revolution threatens to undermine the role and privileges of the corporate journalist. Readers no longer have to depend on these well-paid “arbiters of truth”. For the first time, readers have direct access to the original sources, to the unmediated documents.
Readers no longer have to be passive consumers of news. They can inform themselves. Not only can they cut out the middle man—the corporate media—but they can finally assess whether that middle man has been entirely straight with them.
That is very bad news for individual corporate journalists. At best, it strips them of any aura of authority and prestige. At worst, it ensures that a profession already held in low esteem is seen as even less trustworthy.
But it is also very bad news for media owners. They no longer control the news agenda. They can no longer serve as institutional gatekeepers. They can no longer define the limits of acceptable ideas and opinion.
Second, the Wikileaks revolution sheds an unflattering light on the traditional model of journalism. It shows it to be inherently dependent on—and therefore complicit with—secret power.
The lifeblood of the Wikileaks model is the whistleblower, who risks eveything to get out public-interest information the powerful want concealed because it reveals corruption, abuse or lawbreaking. Think Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
The lifeblood of corporate journalism, by contrast, is access. Corporate journalists make an implicit transaction: the insider delivers selected snippets of information to the journalist that may or may not be true and that invariably serve the interests of unseen forces in the corridors of power.
For both sides, the relationship of access depends on not antagonising power by exposing its deep secrets.
The insider is only useful to the journalist so long as he or she has access to power. Which means that the insider is rarely going to offer up information that truly threatens that power. If they did, they would soon be out of a job.
But to be considered useful, the insider needs to offer to the reporter information that appears to be revelatory, that holds out the promise for the journalist of career advancement and prizes.
Both sides are playing a role in a game of charades that serves the joint interests of the corporate media and and political elite.
At best, access offers insights for journalists into the power plays between rival elite groups with conflicting agendas—between the more liberal elements of the power elite and the more hawkish elements.
The public interest is invariably served in only the most marginal way: we get a partial sense of the divisions within an administration or a bureaucracy, but very rarely the full extent of what is going on.
For a brief period, the liberal components of the corporate media swapped out their historic access to join Wikileaks in its transparency revolution. But they quickly understood the dangers of the path they were embarking on—as the quote from Assange we began with makes clear.
Mind and muscle
It would be a big mistake to assume that the corporate media feels threatened by Wikileaks simply because the latter has made a much better fist of holding power to account than the corporate media. This isn’t about envy. It’s about fear. In reality, Wikileaks does exactly what the corporate media wishes not to do.
Journalists ultimately serve the interests of media owners and advertisers. These corporations are the concealed power running our societies. In addition to owning the media, they fund the politicians and finance the think tanks that so often dictate the news and policy agenda. Our governments declare these corporations, especially those dominating the financial sector, too big to fail. Because power in our societies is corporate power.
The pillars upholding this system of secret elite power—those disguising and protecting it—are the media and the security services: the mind and the muscle. The media corporations are there to protect corporate power using psychological and emotional manipulation, just as the security services are there to protect it using invasive surveillance and physical coercion.
Wikileaks disrupts this cosy relationship from both ends. It threatens to end the role of the corporate media in mediating official information, instead offering the public direct access to official secrets. And in so doing, it dares to expose the tradecraft of the security services as they go about their lawbreaking and abuses, and thereby impose unwelcome scrutiny and restraint on them.
In threatening to bring democratic accountability to the media and the security services, and exposing their long-standing collusion, Wikileaks opens a window on how sham our democracies truly are.
The shared desire of the security services and the corporate media is to disappear Assange in the hope that his revolutionary model of journalism is abandoned or forgotten for good.
It won’t be. The technology is not going away. And we must keep reminding the world of what Assange accomplished, and the terrible price he paid for his achievement.