The Julian Assange Ruling
It is a mistake to entrust governments with the power to decide what it is in the “public interest” for citizens to know
That was the strangest legal judgement I’ve ever witnessed - not least because I was consuming it through the disjointed Tweets of journalists in court. With each successive update it looked as though Julian Assange was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. And then - astonishingly - a final bulletin: “Assange wins.”
Outside the Old Bailey court in central London some of his supporters were jubilant: others were in tears. I imagine Assange himself - after 10 years of varying kinds of imposed solitude - will not feel like celebrating just yet. For a start, the US Government has announced it intends to appeal. And - with Assange’s record of skipping bail in the past - it may be some time before he is released from the maximum security prison in which he’s currently being kept.
Nevertheless, this was a significant moment for Assange, if not for the cause of press freedom. The judge took care to dismiss nearly all the arguments the maverick publisher/activist had advanced in defence of his work. The sole reason she refused the US Government's attempt to extradite him was that Assange was a suicide risk and might not survive the sort of severe incarceration he could expect if found guilty of charges under the Espionage Act.
If the judge was cool about Assange’s defence, so were many journalists. It’s easy to see why. Firstly, there is a reluctance to extend the label “journalist” to characters like Assange who have multiple identities: whistleblower, source, publisher, activist, information anarchist, troublemaker... and (he claims) journalist.
Secondly, many journalists (myself included) were troubled by Assange’s role in the 2016 US Presidential election where he was open to the charge of acting as a conduit for a Russian intelligence operation to destabilise the democratic arrangements of another country.
Thirdly, there was the character question. To some, Assange is a kind of digital Messiah, heralding a new age of transparency and accountability. To others, he is sleazy, misogynistic and narcissistic. Very few people are neutral about the Wikileaks founder - and he himself has a particular talent for alienating even his friends.
But I think it is a mistake for journalists - and the wider public - to shrug over his fate.
Consider the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers detailing government lies about the Vietnam was to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971. At the time he was denounced as a traitor - and the Nixon administration would gladly have locked him up and thrown away the key.
Today, at the end of 89, he is widely seen as a hero - someone who was prepared to risk everything to tell the public truths they were entitled to know. The newspapers won resoundingly in the Supreme Court with judgements which, unlike this week’s Assange ruling, contained ringing endorsements of the press’s duty to expose uncomfortable and embarrassing realities.
Ellsberg shows us that it is often a mistake to entrust governments with the power to decide what it is in the “public interest” for citizens to know. Democratic societies need people independent from mainstream political power to reach their own judgements on what the public has a right to know.
We call such people “journalists”. Much of what Assange did (and was accused of) looked very much like “journalism”, even if “real” journalists were not willing to admit him into their circle.
But “journalism” is itself a loose and messy term to describe a range of activities from the shoutiest, most biased tabloid to the most elevated and impartial public service broadcaster.
I suspect that, in the future, there will be many more Ellsbergs, Assanges, Snowdens, Not all of them will deserve support for all they do - but many of them will. The law will have to come to terms with a different landscape of information - and so, in time, will journalists.
Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian, now chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and is Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.