Even that title strikes an odd note. It should not. The Fourth Estate, historically reputed as the chamber of journalists and publishers keeping an eye on elected officials, received a blast of oxygen with the arrival of WikiLeaks. This was daring, rich stuff: scientific journalism in the trenches, news gathering par excellence. But what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did was something unpardonable to many who pursue the journalist’s craft: sidestepping the newspaper censors, permitting unadulterated access to original sources.
People could finally scrutinise raw documents – cables, memoranda, briefing notes, diplomatic traffic – without the secondary and tertiary forms of self-censorship that characterise the newspaper imperium. Editorially imposed measures could be outflanked; the biases and prejudices of newspaper moguls could be ignored.
This has meant that media outlets in the drought affected mainstream can only ever make quiet acknowledgments about the seriousness of the US case against Assange. It is why certain outlets fail, and have failed to cover the extradition proceedings against the publisher with any degree of serious alarm or considered fear. When they do, irrelevant and inconsequential details feature like tabloid tat: the irate Assange, shouting from his caged stand; the kooky Assange, somewhat unhinged.
A central contention of the prosecution case against Assange is that he is no publisher or journalist being gradually asphyxiated by the apparatus of power for exposing it, but a cold, calculating purloiner of state secrets indifferent to the welfare of informants. Thieves cannot avail themselves of press freedoms nor summon the solid protections of the US First Amendment, even if they did expose torture, war crimes and illegal renditions. It is a narrative that has been fed shamelessly by certain members of the media fraternity, rendering them indifferent and, at times, even hostile to the efforts of WikiLeaks. David Leigh and Luke Harding of The Guardian added kindling to his idea by publishing the full passphrase to the file of un-redacted US State Department cables in their 2011 book. It was foolish and clumsy, and did not shine a good light on the parties involved.
A train was set in motion: the German weekly Der Freitag ran a piece in August that same year pointing an indirect finger to the password revealed by Leigh and Harding;