|WikiLeaks files revealed that the Australian government quietly tried to undermine a proposed ban on cluster bombs [EPA]|
There is the violence you see, and then there is the violence you don’t.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek captures this point expertly in his monograph Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, when he opens with the well-known story about an employee suspected of stealing from his workplace:
“Every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were simply blinded to the obvious truth.”
In cataloguing world politics, news media has a tendency to focus our attention on the highly visible acts of violent conflict and environmental degradation, or what Zizek calls “subjective” violence. This myopic view, he reasons, disables us from seeing two other, more pervasive and “objective” forms of violence: the “symbolic” violence of language (e.g. our choice and assembly of words) and the “systemic” violence of our economic and political systems (e.g. the transboundary harm to small island communities caused by economic activity in far-off places).
Simply put, physical injury is only one form of violence; other forms exist invisibly in the functioning of language and power that to a large extent determine how societies interrelate. Nowhere is this power more far-reaching, relatively unchallenged, and relied upon than in world news media.
For the second time this year, incidents involving the Australian press have directed our attention towards the harm caused by the routine operation of the media. First, in what has now been widely reported, various employees of News Corporation have been accused of improperly accessing the telecommunications services of targeted individuals in order to publish more detailed and revelatory stories about a kidnapped girl – a simple yet utterly deplorable case of trying to manufacture an exclusive scoop.
The second and more recent revelation has consequences that are equally significant, but is not so well known.
Beginning in December 2010, a little-known Australian journalist Dr Philip Dorling began authoring what he has subsequently referred to as “a large number of front-page stories that have shed new light” on Australia’s foreign relations. Each of the stories, with topics ranging from the content of US embassy cables to previously confidential Australian policy positions, has been based on “exclusive” access to WikiLeaks source documents, and published by Fairfax, one of Australia’s largest newspaper companies.
Despite requests, and is standard practice elsewhere, neither Fairfax nor Dr Dorling made the WikiLeaks material publicly available.
Of particular importance were reports that since at least 2006, Australia had – under the previous Labour government – worked behind the scenes with the governments of Britain, Canada and Japan, as well as with certain Asian and African states, to ensure that the final text of the international convention banning cluster munitions would not preclude Australian forces jointly operating alongside states who are not party to the treaty, and who are therefore permitted to deploy cluster bombs. In essence, Australia took a pro-active public role in promoting the humanitarian need for a treaty banning cluster munitions in all their respects, and quietly went about undermining what was actually precluded by the convention.
However, Dr Dorling and Fairfax did not break their “exclusive” cluster munitions story until May 2011.
By this time, the final consultation period before Australia ratified its highly-criticised interpretation of its treaty obligations into domestic law had ended. And with it, a further seven months of lobbying by various interest groups advocating for and against Australia’s draft legislation had passed. Indeed, all indications since around February were that the Senate would vote on the bill within weeks, until that decision was pushed back to March, April, then further still to May, June and July. Indeed, it is only by pure chance that the Senate has still yet to vote on whether to pass the bill without amendment, effectively ending years of lobbying both here and overseas.
The months since November 2010, when Dr Dorling first took possession of the WikiLeaks material, have therefore been a unique and critical time for all interest groups to be across the finer details of the source documents. It was, after all, information intended by WikiLeaks to be freely accessible in the public domain – not for the exclusive use of Dr Dorling and Fairfax.
The obvious truth
It was not until 29 August and subsequently, however, that ABC’s Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes was able to publicise details of how Dr Philip Dorling, acting as a freelancer, came to acquire exclusive “sole custody” of the WikiLeaks cables in November 2010. As a result of Holmes’ investigation, it also became clear that senior Fairfax editors had, under pressure since December 2010 (for example, here and here), argued that to retain exclusive access to the WikiLeaks material enabled Fairfax time to continue “mining the source documents”, because “to put the material online would be to give access to our competitors in the local market”. Holmes rightly summed up these tensions within Fairfax thus:
“It’s in the public interest – including that of future victims of these nasty weapons – for the cables to be posted. It’s in Fairfax’s commercial interest to keep them under wraps”.
More recently, by this stage learning that an investigative story Holmes into the whole affair was due to be aired on national television, journalist Dr Dorling conceded that since he produced the first WikiLeaks scoop for Fairfax in December 2010, in fact numerous parties had requested access to the source documents, including “non-government organisations, members of Federal Parliament, one commercial enterprise, and two foreign embassies”.
In the same memo, Dr Dorling goes on to acknowledge that he was fully aware that at the same time, the international treaty discussed in many of the WikiLeaks documents was to be immanently ratified into domestic law. Curiously, Dr Dorling reasons that he denied access to the WikiLeaks cables to all of the requesting parties because, in his words:
“Since I am a journalist and not a partisan for any particular cause, I took the view that it would be inappropriate for me to meet any of these requests, no matter how forcefully the demands for access were made or my own views about the merits or otherwise of their particular political campaign or other interests”.
Responding to these assertions, the media investigator Jonathan Holmes claimed in his televised report that by not arranging for public access to the leaked material, is a “dereliction of [Fairfax’s] editorial responsibility” to enable the open verification of the facts presented in each of Dr Dorling’s scoops.
I charge that the greater indiscretion is to obtain personal (on the part of Dr Dorling) and commercial advantage (on the part of Fairfax newspapers) from public goods that may have yielded additional revelations not identified because of editorial priorities and researcher expertise or skill had they been rightfully in the public domain.
Public notice: Stolen goods found
As it turns out, on August 27 and August 29, 2011, WikiLeaks made available on its website what appears to be the full cache of source documents held by Dr Dorling since November 2010.
Subsequent statements from WikiLeaks make plain what led to the bottleneck:
@wikileaks: “Our contracts help us publish the underlying cables. But the media organisation must tell us using our system. [Fairfax] hasn’t”.
Neither Fairfax nor Dr Dorling accepts responsibility for failing to follow the WikiLeaks procedures that enable the source material to be archived on its website.
Reflecting on the chain of events now, what is most striking is how seldom the real price paid for the WikiLeaks documents is factored into the reasoning provided by Fairfax, WikiLeaks, and Dr Dorling – or, for that matter, their critics. If the billionaire investor Warren Buffett is at all correct in his assertion that “price is what you pay and value is what you get”, then Private Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst facing long-term incarceration for the heist, must be wondering why all the value in his actions is being eroded in this way.
Rather than scramble to personally and commercially profit from the “scoops” as have Dr Dorling and Fairfax, the media must remember that WikiLeaks is – at least in theory – based on the idea that disclosures are a preventative instrument: a tool of transparency, and a warning to those in power to not abuse it for fear of being exposed.
What was the heist worth?
Making claims about the implications of not withholding the source documents is to engage in a counterfactual thought experiment.
One possible “what if” scenario involves a plausible rewrite of history, such as Dr Philip Dorling failing to secure Fairfax exclusive rights to the Australian cache of WikiLeaks cables, or the editors of Fairfax notifying WikiLeaks as all publishers are obliged to do. Given WikiLeaks’ stated aims and policies, that it would deny Fairfax privileged access is entirely feasible.
In this (ideal) world, either the stories surrounding Australia’s diplomatic efforts to scupper the international convention would have been left unfounded, or another individual or group of individuals – potentially even seeking source material on another matter – would have themselves produced the “scoop”. If Twitter activity were anything to go by, the latter scenario is most probable.
What is certain is that of all the media coverage of the recent WikiLeaks cache, a simple Google search of “Australian WikiLeaks” results in several thousands of articles and reports on a variety of details contained in the reports: Australia’s role in the rebuilding of the Solomon Islands, Australia’s position at the UN on the Goldstone Report, US embassy interest in Australian corporate litigation involving technology companies, and so on. But only two items – Jonathan Holmes’ television segment and his subsequent op-ed – focussed on the topic of cluster munitions. Indeed, progressive news outlet Crikey identified what they see as the key topics to emerge from the cables, and cluster munitions did not even make the list.
Some may argue that this perceived level of disinterest in the cluster munitions cables merely reflects what is an unimportant issue – that this minimal rewrite, however plausible, would have had little effect on how things have played out. I would counter that the utility of making all WikiLeaks documents freely accessible is not necessarily in telling us something new about what occurs in world politics, but in rendering it impossible to pretend to not know what is now firmly in the public domain: that the Australian government is Janus-faced on the cluster munitions norm, and that a weak ratification of the treaty was inevitable.
And so it is not only WikiLeaks that free-thinking people must seek to protect, but the mechanism by which – call it a wheelbarrow – the information enters into our purview.
NAJ Taylor is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, and casual lecturer in the Faculty of Law and Management at La Trobe University.
Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylordotcom
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.