Editor’s Note: Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015. He is the author of “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Once upon a time the ethical debates around journalism were comparatively simple – beginning with the most basic question of all: Who is a journalist?
But here in 2019, nothing about Julian Assange is simple. Looking like a befuddled Old Testament prophet, the WikiLeaks founder was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Thursday to a new form of captivity – and to challenge journalists around the world as to whether he is a hero deserving their support, or a villain for whom few would weep tears if he spent the rest of his life in a jail cell.
Why the polarized differences?
Assange’s story is an extraordinary one. He started out as an obscure and anonymous hacker, and became one of the most talked-about people in the world – at once reviled, celebrated and lionized; sought-after, imprisoned, self-exiled and shunned.
He had been catapulted from the obscurity of a life dribbling out leaks that nobody much noticed, to publishing a flood of classified documents that went to the heart of America’s military and foreign policy operations – even playing a controversial, some say decisive, role in the 2016 US presidential election.
From being a marginal figure invited to join panels at geeky tech conferences he was suddenly America’s public enemy number one. If this wasn’t dramatic enough, in the middle of it all, two women in Sweden came forward with allegations of sex crimes, which he has denied: One accused him of sexual assault and the other of rape. The media and public were torn between those who saw Assange as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as something akin to a James Bond villain.
But – despite the tensions and the shouting matches and the disappearances and the threats and the silences – he briefly helped collaborate with the Guardian and New York Times to produce some rather important reporting. As Sarah Ellison’s Vanity Fair piece on the Iraq and diplomatic cables disclosures concluded: “Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.”
So is Assange really a journalist? The answer in 2019 is a complicated one. New technologies allow millions of people to commit individual acts of journalism. That may not make them “journalists” in a conventional sense, but it does raise the question of whether these journalistic acts deserve the same sort of protection as those carried out by people who have had more traditional careers in journalism.
To my mind, Assange is partly a journalist. Part of what he does has involved the selection, editing, verifying and contextualizing of news material – just as any journalist would do. But Assange is also a publisher, a political activist, a hacker, an information anarchist, a player. Yes, he believes – sometimes – in editing. But he also believes in dumping vast oceans of documents, unedited and unredacted, careless to the consequences.
One is journalism, the other isn’t.
Things become still more complicated if – and it’s a big “if” because we don’t know the whole truth – Assange subsequently allowed himself to become the conduit for material stolen by one foreign power to destabilize another: The release of thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and published at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. It prompted the man who would become President of the United States to declare: “I love WikiLeaks!”
On the basis of the US extradition request to the British government, the charges against Assange are currently rather thin. He is accused of pushing his source, Chelsea Manning, to come up with still more documents around 2010. Well, many journalists might put their hands up and say they’ve done the same.
Next he’s accused of trying to help Manning conceal her identity on various official computer systems as she roamed around for more documents to download and leak. Is this a sinister sign of Assange trying to hack secret systems (though the indictment doesn’t use the word “hack”)? Or is it what any decent journalist would do: Try to protect their sources from detection?
We won’t know the answers to these questions until the case comes to court in the US – a process that could well take months, if not years. The US authorities could come up with more ammunition as the case proceeds. But – on the basis of what we know so far – it is not clear that Assange is being accused of behaving in ways that respected Pulitzer Prize winning journalists would disavow.
His case is not a simple one. But disliking Assange shouldn’t be the same as disowning him.