John Birmingham on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks
By Willy Bach
7 October 2010
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a reference to the 1976 science fiction film starring David Bowie. It is a creative title, but could this be a reference to Julian Assange’s hair?
John Birmingham, is a fiction writer and author of He Died with a Felafel in His Hand. It is a book about ‘getting wasted’ in suburban Australia. He is an accomplished writer, popular at writers’ festivals and good copy for his publishers, Duffy and Snellgrove.
Michael Duffy of Duffy and Snellgrove is also well-known in Australia for his promotion of privatisation of the ABC, until the ABC gave him his own Radio National show, Counterpoint, which is a vehicle for odd climate change deniers and promoters of 1960s urban sprawl. The style of presentation makes no pretence of objectivity and allows guests to portray risky assertions as facts that were conspiratorially hidden from us by the mythical latté- sipping urban elites.
Birmingham spends a substantial part of his introduction setting the scene for his final conclusion. In his first sentence he spells out the historical fact, which I take on trust at this point, “The religion of peace came late to Nuristan Province, arriving at spearpoint in 1896.” This statement is sufficient to situate the author as one who believes that the various strands of the Islamic faith constitute a religion of violence, and only that.
This statement omits any acknowledgment of the violence perpetrated by the organised forces of the Christian churches through the ages; the Crusaders, the Inquisition, collaboration with the Nazis, or for that matter, the forces sent into Afghanistan in 2001 to accomplish what George W Bush called ‘Operation Infinite Justice’, which quickly became ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. Nor must the invasion of Iraq in 2003 be misplaced from our consideration. These invasions were carried out with considerable brutality and the overwhelming might of industrialised warfare of which only a hyperpower is capable and accompanied with invocations of a deity that were echoed by British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Birmingham’s position appears to accept the ‘normality’ that there is a war in Afghanistan as a given, without any reference to the way it began. There is now a widely held consensus that the wars were illegal, not necessary, that high-level deceit led members of the coalition of the willing to take military action, and that US, NATO and Australian soldiers are slogging it out and risking their lives in a hopelessly interminable and pointless conflict.
In his explanation of the circumstances of the ambush in Badakhshan in which the humanitarian aid workers were brutally killed, Birmingham does not explain to readers that performing this kind of work in the midst of conflict is inherently dangerous. Nor does he explain that any association of the doctors with the allied armed forces immediately endangers the lives of the aid workers, as it instils fear and suspicion among local people. Afghanis do have legitimate concerns about whether the medical assistance has some hidden agenda, which can be a counterinsurgency agenda or a proselytising one or both.
Birmingham mentions International Assistance Mission (IAM), but does not reveal that, as Christian Today Australia explains,
“Dr Karen Woo, 36, was one of 10 aid workers killed by insurgents while working for International Assistance Mission (IAM), a non profit-making Christian organisation.”
Whilst I admire this courageous British doctor as much as Birmingham does; I believe that we need to understand that this was a form of missionary work. Neither would I particularly like to meet bandits with AK-47 assault rifles or the Taliban and negotiate my life. I would not think it wise try proselytising in a country that expressly forbade it, as Malaysia does. Birmingham might have been a little more forthcoming about this religious missionary connection.
Closely related to this point, for those of us who follow development issues, was the news of Australia’s decision to combine AUSAID with the Department of Defence, as seen in this ABC story, Concern expressed about Australian aid agency's independence, 1 May 2009, was extremely unwelcome if you value the lives of good people like Dr Karen Woo and her colleagues. This is just the sort of arrangement that will get them killed.
But the ambush is not just about the aid workers. Birmingham sets a few ambushes of his own. He is doing an article on Julian Assange on behalf of the corporate media that has woefully failed to adhere to journalistic ethics and prefer the safer role of “government stenographers”, as John Pilger put it. Birmingham has assiduously reiterated the ‘talking points’ of the Obama administration without mention of the government fraudulence and secrecy that continue, and led just as surely to WikiLeaks as it did to the revelations of Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. But Birmingham does not mention Ellsberg, or the benefits of more open and accountable government that resulted from the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg has applauded Assange’s leaks.
Historical researchers are frustrated when they discover that documents in the archives are not complete or were redacted by canny protagonists. They are still gleaning valuable insights from the Pentagon Papers and the 2009-2010 tranche of documents is being studied now in its refreshing entirety and a very welcome thirty to fifty years ahead of schedule. Birmingham does not mention the many families of veterans who distressingly failed to learn the truth of the loss of their loved ones in time-consuming visits to the archives.
Instead, Birmingham complains that Assange, who is not a journalist, does not play the game set out for this profession in their filtering of often perfidious government media releases. Yet, if governments were truthful and the media thoroughly critiqued government actions instead of acting as war cheer-leaders, there would be no necessity for leaked documents. Birmingham complains: “Not for WikiLeaks the tiresome business of eliminating biases, offering rights of reply or even at times fact-checking its information;” David Carr’s “Asymmetrical journalism”; “Ham fisted attempts at pathos” and “the impossibility of making fine-grained distinctions on a battlefield.”
Since the media embarrassments of the Indochina, the US and allied governments tightened the reign on wandering journalists and sat them all down to watch military PowerPoint presentations. They then became ‘embedded’ – which means exactly that. Birmingham appears to have a special respect for the journalists who ride the Humvees and report the war from the viewpoint of the soldiers. They see the killing of civilians, but then they understand what a hard time those soldiers are having. That is fine, but it is not the whole story. Interestingly, the Australian DoD allows much less of this than their US counterparts.
War is much more than the experiences of soldiers and the manipulated PR-directed accounts that governments want us to hear. The voices of the civilians are all but invisible in this form of journalism. The opposing forces also have a view on the war, yet it is dangerous for many reasons for Western journalists to seek interviews. This is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s ban on Sinn Féin and IRA leaders appearing on British television. The British public was not allowed to know what the Saville Inquiry eventually revealed about the events of 1972 Bloody Sunday in Ulster. Thirty eight years represented an unacceptable level of pain and uncertainty for the families of victims and was unendurably too long to wait.
No doubt, David Finkel’s book is well-written as a view from the US forces Humvee gun turret. But Birmingham’s put-down of Assange, the new kind of online leak publisher, is prejudiced against any investigative journalist and his/her sources, when he writes “did not gather his information clandestinely or at a vast remove. [Finkel, however] Having been embedded with the troops in question he understood the world in which they fought and the infeasibility of making moral judgements during combat.”
Birmingham continues to explain of Finkel that “… the reporter explained minute by minute how the Apaches came to fire on the reporters and the Iraqis, some of whom were found to be armed with AK-47s and RPGs when American ground forces reached the site of the massacre”. All this happened, fortunately, because, “Finkel was given access to the recordings that Assange obtained by stealth … without the crude attempts at emotional manipulation”… “… the killings of Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen can be seen for what they are, two more brushstrokes in a landscape of despair.”
Apparently, war is just a tragedy for which no one is responsible. Birmingham is convinced that the video footage in its entirety sustains his view, and Finkel’s that the incident contained no wrong-doing by US forces on what was a routine operational day. He is untroubled by the fact that Finkel was given privileged access to this material whilst other professional journalists were not.
Yet he is silent on the helicopter crew-member’s response to the wounding of the two children in the van, which was something to the effect that it served the parents right for bringing the children into a war zone. Birmingham might let that go by, but he would probably not appreciate his suburb being referred to as a war zone and in such an unsympathetic tone. One of the US soldiers on the ground suggested that the children could be treated in a nearby US military hospital, but his officer refused to consider this. The wounded children needed to make a longer and more hazardous journey to an under-resourced Iraqi hospital. Birmingham is again silent.
The YouTube version of Collateral Murder and others available online have been the all-time biggest audience builders – such is the worldwide interest and insatiable thirst for genuine information. It is peculiar that anyone should object so strongly and particularly anomalous that the US government has not published their own version, since there are alleged to be such distortions in Assange’s edited version. It is both incomprehensible and unforgivable that the video has not been given to Reuters, whose correspondents were real human beings, not just “two more brushstrokes in a landscape of despair”. On this issue, Birmingham is silent.
Un-embedded journalists have been repeatedly targeted by both insurgents and US forces in order to silence them or destroy their stories, the most notorious being the use of a battle tank in April 2003 to attack the Palestine Hotel room in which Al Jezeera journalists were staying, causing the death of Ayyoub, a Jordanian and wounding of Al-Jazeera cameraman Zouhair Nadhim. This too was not troubling Birmingham’s mind.
Birmingham enlists New York Times consultant, Jay Rosen, who speaks from the ‘old media’ standpoint when he says of WikiLeaks:
“We find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors…If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online … or WikiLeaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real?”
This is the same New York Times that won a legal case to uphold its right to publish the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg leaked. This is also the New York Times in which Anthony Lewis infamously wrote, "The early American decisions on Indochina can be regarded as blundering efforts to do good. But by 1969 it was clear to most of the world - and most Americans - that the intervention had been a disastrous mistake". What? Ten years of planning and preparing for war, and it was just a mistake? What will be Birmingham’s verdict on the current wars?
Finally, the ambush that Birmingham has prepared, the punch line of his article, the finishing brushstrokes are in his final words:
“Why link to Assange’s 16 pages of first-hand reports … Unless, of course, you are a Taliban commander looking for names to add to your death list”.
Yet Birmingham has no evidence that the Obama Pentagon genuinely held concerns for their interpreters, fixers and collaborators. Nor has any evidence been produced showing harm to these people as a result of the leaks. In fact, the US government has frequently refused sanctuary to such people, as did the Howard government in Australia.
The adherence to US government ‘talking points’ by Birmingham includes all of the gratuitous Assange family information, as though a child could be responsible for having a violent father, which then obliged his mother to move 37 times. Such information has nothing to do with government secrecy or dishonesty; nothing to do with the illegality of the wars; nothing to do with WikiLeaks, not information in the public interest and has no place in a distinguished journal that is said to be a rather long way uphill from the Sydney and Melbourne tabloids.