Wikileaks and investigative journalism 1

“All governments lie” according to the founder of modern investigative journalism, IF Stone.

Stone had a lot in common with Wikileaks‘ Julian Assange.

In the Fifties, “Izzy” Stone broke free from mainstream press compliance with, and reliance on, systematic spin. He created his own files, cross referencing and contextualising what governments said, to help reveal what they actually did. He published the results in his own newspaper, IF Stone’s Weekly.

Wikileaks does much the same thing today assisted by the speed of computers and the reach of the internet. In both cases, these media dissidents interrogated governments’ own sources. And in both cases, this revelation of otherwise hidden government activities was claimed to be a threat to national security. Stone was branded as a communist, a fifties smear as potent as the attempt to convict Julian Assange as a gender criminal (a much more contemporary offence).

Today, about two hundred Wikileaks supporters rallied in Brisbane, the capital of  Queensland, Assange’s home state. They supported free speech and demanded he be freed of vexatious prosecution. They marched through city streets with banners and flags, escorted by polite police on push bikes, who monitored the event with video cameras fixed to their bike helmets. One could only speculate where the video data they collected would be stored or how it might be used in the future.

Most people seem to think that free speech is a continuing given in modern democracies. But speech hasn’t always been free in the state of Queensland. Forty years ago, I stood on nearly the same spot when police attacked the crowd, arresting people for taking part in demonstrations declared illegal by the government. In those days,  dirty little state secrets included backroom deals with mining companies, the bashing and even murder of aboriginal people and a police commissioner who actually headed the state’s organised crime. These daily facts were largely ignored by the mainstream press for more than a decade. Their political reporters fed instead on the sort of daily spin cycle  studiously ignored by Stone and Assange. The Premier of the time, Joh Bjelke Petersen, described his relations with the press as “feeding the chooks”.

So in a world before the internet, independent muckrakers printed their own “underground” newspapers and tried to sell them on Brisbane’s city streets. According to one of their contributors, Tony Bowen, writing in 1967, “The aim of [mainstream] press men is not to discover the truth!”

For the person holding minority views, it is obviously very difficult for him [sic] to gain access to the public through the mass media, even if the controllers of the mass media had the most liberal of wills, which without being paranoid in any sense, they clearly have not. The press etc. are in fact societal instrumentalities. They are on the side of the government, they believe in the status quo. They will criticise the government over such momentous issues as parking facilities in Brisbane, but they will not and in fairness cannot publish objective articles on topics such as socialism or overseas investment in Australia, or press, radio, or TV monopolies or oligopolies. They are in fact part of the group that are doing very well out of the position as it is. Only a fool or an idealist would wish to change it.

So much has changed yet so much remains the same.

Fools and idealists indeed tried to change the media,  lobbying for the introduction of FM radio and eventually creating their own radio station in Brisbane, 4 ZZZ FM. That station, still run by a collective, celebrated its thirty fifth anniversary this month. Under the slogan, “Educate, Agitate, Organise”,  ZZZ sought  to:

  • Provide an alternative source of information to that which was offered by the mainstream media;
  • Create a training ground for other people so that they could acquire skills outside the mainstream, that would allow them access to the mainstream;
  • Demystify the media;
  • Broadcast Australian music.

Operating out of what was the old Communist Party Headquarters in Brisbane, Tripe Zed broadcasts twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. Its team of citizen journalists still seek the stories neglected by the mainstream press.

The creation of community radio helped solve local distribution problems for otherwise marginalised communities. But citizen journalists, just like their mainstream colleagues, found how hard it was to extract hidden truths.

The internet has opened IF Stone’s filing cabinets to everyone with a computer and allowed the results to be transmitted globally, without mediation by government friends in mainstream media.

You can see why the spin masters are worried!

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One comment

  1. Pingback: WikiLeaks -To tell or not to tell, that is the question « thoughtmuch

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