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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Hard to distinguish our friends from the enemies of the state

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Will Smith's character in  Enemy of the State  found himself hunted by the US Government - much like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Photo / Supplied
Will Smith's character in Enemy of the State found himself hunted by the US Government - much like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Photo / Supplied

Like an emotionally stunted child who tears wings off butterflies, they say, [Assange] does what he does simply because he can.If - or should that be when - Hollywood makes a movie of the WikiLeaks affair, which roles will the protagonists be assigned?

There's the whistleblower - a geeky, enigmatic, perhaps seriously flawed loner - and there are the governments, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and corporations hell-bent on putting him behind bars and out of business. Who would be the hero here and who would be the villain?

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange must be feeling like the Will Smith character in the 1998 film Enemy of the State, a lawyer hunted by agents from the shadowy National Security Agency (NSA) after a friend entrusts him with evidence of a conspiracy to expand the United States government's ability to spy on its citizens.

After the NSA fakes evidence that he's having an adulterous affair, the lawyer finds himself sacked, kicked out of home, unable to access his bank accounts, isolated, on the run ...

sound familiar?

Ah yes, I hear you say, but that's Hollywood. It doesn't operate in the real world. Okay, so what if a malcontent in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaks classified documents to the Herald which show that John Key thinks Barack Obama is an ineffectual show pony destined to be a one-term president?

Or that the Government is contracting out the SAS to Central Asian dictators facing insurrections? Or even that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard brings her partner breakfast in bed dressed in a French maid's uniform?

In each instance, publication would be hugely embarrassing for the Government and arguably not in the national interest. Should the editor bow to government pressure in the form of warnings of grave consequences for the nation, hand the documents over to the authorities and dob in the informant? Or should he say: "This information is of relevance and interest to our readers, therefore publish and be damned"?

There are a couple of recent examples of people invoking the national interest in an attempt to persuade the media to self-censor.

When the All Black coaches decided to delay team announcements to keep opponents guessing, Steve Hansen suggested that the rugby media should play its part by not speculating on the make-up of the team based on what they'd observed at training.

Amid much scoffing, it was pointed out that the media's primary obligation is to their readership or audience, not the All Black cause. Herald columnist Chris Rattue summed it up thus: "If Hansen doesn't want certain information in the media, he must try to keep it secret. And the media's job is to find out about it."

The team leading England's bid to host the 2018 soccer World Cup pleaded with the BBC not to screen an investigation into corruption within Fifa. After the programme aired, Fifa awarded the event to Russia, which coincidentally was portrayed as a mafia state in the recent batch of WikiLeaks.

The 2022 World Cup went to that footballing powerhouse Qatar, a decision that drew this response from the Australian member of Fifa's ethics committee: "As a private individual, I'm convinced there was collusion. That Qatar should hold the World Cup is a notion that borders on ludicrous."

Some have ridiculed comparisons between Assange and famous whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and Mark Felt, the FBI man known as Deep Throat who helped expose the Watergate scandal, on the grounds that he has no coherent agenda or clear principles. Like an emotionally stunted child who tears wings off butterflies, they say, he does what he does simply because he can.

Ellsberg and Felt betrayed classified material, yet were accorded hero status because the cause was seen as just. Assange is simply a conduit; he didn't break an oath or breach a trust.

As Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd pointed out, the leaks came from one or more of the "two million" Americans who had access to this supposedly highly sensitive information.

Assange's motivation is really beside the point. For the newspapers that processed and disseminated the data provided by WikiLeaks - and let's not forget most people got the information from the mainstream media, not some guerrilla website - the whole issue would have boiled down to this: is it newsworthy?

Given the blood and treasure the US has expended in Afghanistan, is it newsworthy that the Afghani Vice-President had $70 million in cash on him when he arrived in the US recently? Or that the US authorities let him keep it without even revealing its origin or destination?

As the British press baron Lord Northcliffe famously said: "News is what someone, somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising."

- NZ Herald

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