Julian Assange is a strange inkblot test for official Australia. For the official secrets culture of Canberra, Assange is so confronting as to be incomprehensible.
Since WikiLeaks burst on the world, official Canberra hasn’t wanted to find meaning in Assange or grapple with his Australian identity. Much simpler to damn and ignore.
The rest of Australia has had a dozen years to form an Assange view. But in Canberra the secrets culture means that no real Assange answer comes. Canberra still lives the horror of “Cablegate” in 2010, when Wikileaks began releasing secret cables from 274 US diplomatic missions.
The paradox, as Phillip Adams dryly observes, is that Australia gave birth to the two most powerful media figures in the world: Rupert Murdoch and Julian Assange. “Both creating global empires from provincial beginnings. Both seen as dangerous, problematic. Both blamed for changing the course of history.”
Murdoch and Assange share the outsider perspective of Australia. Both have had a significant impact on the United States — the way America understands itself and the way the world thinks about America. Both are interlopers who shook the established media order. Murdoch did his first revolution in Australia, then in Britain, and now in the United States where he’s become an American citizen. Long gone from Australia, Assange fights extradition to America.
In the United States, Assange might well be cleared by a court because of the Constitution’s First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
In Australia, by contrast, this Australian citizen would be in jail. There’s no ifs or buts about the way the official secrets culture would deal with a heretic like Assange. It’d be little use to argue for press freedom or, indeed, that WikiLeaks “largely released material that was embarrassing to governments and militaries but has been of little lasting security harm.”
The hesitation about free speech is the twin of Canberra’s secrets culture. See that culture as defined by one of the capital’s longest-serving journalists, Jack Waterford, former editor of The Canberra Times, who argues “the primary purpose of laws against leaking has been to conceal bureaucratic incompetence and double dealing, and hypocrisy, political cupidity and criminality by Australian politicians, soldiers and intelligence officers”.
In official Canberra, the default setting is secrecy. The internal struggle and argument is always about how much should be made public. The culture loves the TOP SECRET stamp and then asserts the need to enforce absolute secrecy. As Waterford notes: “No modern common law state has laws so draconian, and court processes defying almost every principle of natural justice. It is what we have come to when the guardians are allowed to be their own guardians.”
In ending the Commonwealth prosecution of the Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery over the release of classified information about spying on East Timor, the attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, opted for justice not secrecy. But it was a rare moment for an Australian politician to look beyond the mystique of the TOP SECRET label.
The enduring Canberra truth about the Collaery case was the four years the system spent pursuing the prosecution to serve the secrecy taboo.
Canberra’s secrets culture struggles with the way that US First Amendment norms have shaped journalism here and in much of the world. The long-established freedoms of the US become contested, implied rights in Australia. No wonder Canberra has a hard time comprehending Assange. In this town, the secrecy obsession feeds on security fears. This prompted a remarkable moment in Australian journalism in 2019 when major newspapers blacked out their front pages to protest at the culture of secrecy. Raiding journalists — both Australian and Chinese — is one element of how Australia seeks security.
This official culture is challenged on many levels by the Enlightenment-on-steroids force of the First Amendment, one of the most revolutionary bits of political/legal language ever laid down by statute — a key marker of the US as the most successful-ever revolutionary state.
Back in 2011, I wrote a column about Wikileaks and the US First Amendment:
If Julian Assange ends up before a US court, the bludgeon aimed at his head will be the WW1-inspired blunt instrument, the 1917 Espionage Act. His best shield will be the protection of free speech and the press in the First Amendment. The US would try to nail Assange for enabling the mass leakage of secrets. Assange would claim the protection of being a publisher, no different to the New York Times.
That column about Assange as journalist/publisher was picked up by US academics creating an encyclopedia on the First Amendment. The argument that Assange was doing First Amendment work to reveal dark secrets will grow ever louder in the struggle over his threatened extradition from Britain to the US “to face the clearly preposterous sentence of 175 years in prison” for espionage.
The “preposterous” line is from Philip Johnston, assistant editor of London’s The Telegraph, that newspaper bulwark of Toryism and John Bull Britishness. Things are stirring in Britain when even The Telegraph worries about a “proxy vendetta against an irksome exposer of nefarious state activities,” as Johnston writes:
There is an unmistakeable sense that Assange is being punished because he took the lid off some of the appalling activities of the US military to stop similar investigations in future. The British government’s acquiescence in this enterprise is worrying and came before the publication of a British Bill of Rights which is due to enshrine a commitment to free speech as one of its central provisions.
So, centuries after America got a Bill of Rights, Britain contemplates something similar. Take your pick whether that’s a radical or conservative move. Nothing similar is in view in Australia.
Australia’s government has been mute about Assange because he’s such a challenge to its official secrets culture. And because Assange so discomfited its great ally, the US. Not least of that discomfit is that Assange challenges America using its own magnificent First Amendment values.
If Prime Minister Anthony Albanese acts on his belief that “enough is enough” in the Assange case, he’ll have to do more than persuade Washington. He’ll also have to push against the norms and nostrums of Canberra.
Graeme Dobell was made a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 2011 ‘for his distinguished contribution to journalism through his reporting on politics and international affairs’. He has been a journalist since 1971.