Thursday, July 15, 2010

a new form of news?

Guardian | Everything about this is odd. Julian Assange, the founder, director, frontman, guiding spirit of global whistleblowing service WikiLeaks looks a bit odd for a start. Tall, cadaverous, dressed in ripped jeans, brown jacket, black tie, battered trainers. Somebody says he looks like Andy Warhol with his prematurely white hair, but I can't remember who, which will bother the hell out of him because accuracy is everything. He detests subjectivity in journalism; I fear that part of him detests journalists, too, and that WikiLeaks – which describes itself as an "uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking" – is essentially a way of cutting out subjectivist idiots such as me.

If Assange was producing this article, he would post the rambling hour-and-a-half-long talk he delivers at the Centre for Investigative Journalism's summer school at London's City University online, plus the 10 minutes we spend talking on the way to a restaurant – I almost get him run down by a speeding BMW, which would probably have changed the course of investigative journalism – and the additional 20 minutes of chat in the restaurant before it's politely suggested I've exhausted my time. "When you're dealing with any secondary sources [about me], be extremely careful," he says as we walk, even picking holes in a recent New Yorker piece, enormously long, detailed, no doubt majestically fact-checked, but in which the writer makes an assumption about one of his supporters based on little more than the T-shirt she is wearing.

"Journalism should be more like science," he tells me in the restaurant. "As far as possible, facts should be verifiable. If journalists want long-term credibility for their profession, they have to go in that direction. Have more respect for readers." He likes the idea of a 2,000-word article backed by 25,000 words of source material, and says there is no reason why you can't provide that on the internet. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that car was a BMW, or even that it was speeding.

Assange unveiled in January 2007 and has pulled off some astonishing coups for an organisation with a handful of staff and virtually no funding. It has exposed evidence of corruption in the family of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, published the standard operating procedures for the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, even made public the contents of Sarah Palin's Yahoo account. But what has really propelled WikiLeaks into the media mainstream is the video it released in April of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad in July 2007, which killed a number of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters personnel, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen.

The video, posted in a 39-minute unedited version and as an 18-minute film called Collateral Murder, gives a chilling insight into US military attitudes: sloppiness in identifying targets (the helicopter pilots mistook the Reuters employees' cameras for weapons), eagerness to finish off a grievously wounded man as he attempts to crawl to safety, and lack of concern even for two children in a van that arrives to pick up the bodies and is immediately attacked. "It's their fault for bringing their kids to a battle," says one of the pilots. "That's right," replies his colleague matter-of-factly. This, though, is one of the most one-sided battles you will ever witness. Very few cameras can bring down a helicopter gunship.

My thesis, soon to be exploded by Assange along with pretty well everything else I have predetermined on the basis of what I have read about him, is that this remarkable video is a transformative moment for WikiLeaks. But just before I can put that to him, a handsome, bearded student who was at the talk springs forward. "Julian, before you go, can I just shake your hand," he says, "because I really love what you do and you're like a hero, you really are." They shake hands. The icon and the acolyte. The Warhol parallel becomes ever stronger: Assange as impresario of a new form of news.