The upcoming extradition trial of Julian Assange is the most recent phase in the saga of his legal campaign, which has dominated media coverage – and become the poster topic for the term ‘whistleblower’ (“an insider … who has evidence of illegal or improper conduct and exposes it, either to the authorities or to the press” (Stanger, 2019)) – since 2010. His name, and that of his organisation WikiLeaks, have become infamous, largely at the expense of the information he was seeking to publicise. This is a common theme in the portrayal of whistleblower cases, as the identity, background and motivations of the individual come to dominate the conversation. The information they attempt to expose becomes an afterthought, if it isn’t overlooked entirely. This trend can be seen in media coverage more generally, but in the case of governmental whistleblowers it can have fundamental implications for democracy.
Discussing the actions of intelligence whistleblowers like Assange can be divisive. There are those who consider them heroes, working to uphold democratic transparency, and those who believe them to be traitors, putting the secrets of their governments in enemy hands. For this discussion, these value judgements aren’t so important. What is important is that, if the information they’re trying to disclose is found to provide evidence of government misconduct, this is made known to the public. This is a key part of democratic accountability as, in order for citizens to hold their governments to account, they must be informed. This isn’t to say that there is no place for secrecy in democratic politics – as Schudson (2015) explains, in many ways “nontransparency is a requirement of human survival, of political democracy”. But it is equally true that a government shielded from accountability can be just as harmful.
WikiLeaks was founded by Assange in 2006, but the organisation rose to prominence in 2010 after it exposed details of controversial US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the murder of civilians in Baghdad and the abusive treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (Leigh, Ball, Cobain & Burke, 2011). Among these disclosures was a video from 2007, titled “Collateral Murder”, showing the crew of two US helicopters opening fire on a group of men, later found to be civilians and news reporters, two of whom were killed (WikiLeaks, 2010). These documents were all leaked anonymously, but in May 2010, Chelsea Manning was identified as the source and was arrested.
The media coverage of both Manning’s trial and the arrest warrant of Julian Assange have followed similar trajectories in the sense that, for the most part, their own ‘celebrity’ status became the focus. This evidently played into the hands of the government and military agencies at the centre of the misconduct allegations, as a shift in media focus away from the disclosures themselves would help to obfuscate their accountability. Painting Assange and Manning as traitors provides an excellent narrative to direct media and public attention away from the information they attempted to reveal.
This can also be seen in the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance practices of the NSA and its allied agencies, involving the collection of information on US citizens without their knowledge or consent (Snowden 2019: 239). Snowden released his autobiography Permanent Record at the end of last year, in which he discussed his reasons for revealing his own identity – “instead of addressing the revelations,” he believed, the government would shift the focus onto his own “credibility and motives” if they were to identify him first (Snowden, 2019: 292). However, even as he sought to control his own narrative, media focus did immediately shift to focus on Snowden as an individual and his asylum campaign once he stepped into the spotlight, much the same way as in Assange’s case.
If we compare all of these cases to the recent Trump whistleblower case, this trend stands out even more. In 2019, details came to light of a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which Trump supposedly pressured Zelensky to investigate his political opponents by threatening to withhold millions of dollars of aid (The Hill, 2020). The identity of the original whistleblower has never been revealed – despite Trump’s best efforts (Itkowitz, 2019) – and for this reason, media focus could not be directed away from the allegations and onto any particular individual. The Trump case progressed to a full impeachment investigation and trial and, though it can’t be claimed that the concealment of the whistleblower’s identity was the sole reason for this, it does play an important role. If Trump and his team had been successful in revealing their identity, it’s likely that this individual would become the centre of the story, rather than the original accusations.
This emphasis on the ‘celebrity’ of the individual is a wider media phenomenon, but in the Assange case, his personality and egoism have become the centre of his story. Various articles, documentaries and films have been made about Assange over the years, and he is largely portrayed as an “attention seeker” (BBC News, 2019), or “paranoid” and “deluded” (Hattenstone, 2017). Regardless of whether this is the fault of Assange himself, this media portrayal has supported the curation of a public persona that has overshadowed his organisation’s work.
Perhaps then, the identity of these whistleblowers should always remain unknown in order to maintain focus on their disclosures – perhaps a ban on media outlets revealing their identity until the information they reveal has been assessed. This could be an effective way to ensure channels of democratic accountability remain open, but it isn’t a perfect solution. It’s possible that future governmental whistleblowers may be more reckless in their decision to disclose sensitive information if there is no possibility that they will be publicly accountable. It’s a complex issue, but what is true right now is that governments can successfully shield themselves from accountability by focusing the narrative on whistleblowers themselves, and the media is facilitating this.
Citizens of democratic states should be the ones to make decisions on the actions of their governments and the process of whistleblower disclosures should be designed to facilitate this, whilst also safeguarding national security interests. Both the media and citizens have a significant role to play here, as the public interest in whistleblowers as celebrities largely dictates their coverage in the media. Their disclosures become an afterthought and any potential misconduct by the government is overlooked. Maybe Assange hasn’t helped his own case here, but the barriers to accountability go much deeper than his own ego.