Seung-yoon Lee, CEO and Co-founder of Byline, recently conducted a rare exclusive three-hour interview with Julian Assange in Embassy of Ecuador, London.
In the second of our series of interviews with Julian Assange, we get his views about the media – how it works, whether there is hope in new media models and citizen journalism, and whether he prefers Rupert Murdoch or Eric Schmidt.
Seung-Yoon Lee (“SY”): You have worked with the mainstream media throughout the world in releasing documents. How did your experience of cooperating with mainstream media influence your perspective on them? In retrospect, if you could go back, would you still choose to work with them?
Julian Assange (“JA”): We have contracts with more than a hundred media organisations around the world, still. But it varies among mainstream press outlets. For example, the one in Pakistan can be great on issues outside of Pakistan. Issues inside Pakistan are different. It’s the same for Russia Today; outside Russia and Ukraine, it can be great, but inside Russia is a different story and through this we need to understand the political and economic dynamics that mean the organisation might be trustworthy on one matter and not trustworthy on another matter.
If we look at the big players in the Western press, such as the international New York Times or the BBC, they are all highly compromised organisations in terms of geo-politics, and in terms of their relationships with their own countries. It would be nice to live in a world where people didn’t have to deal with an organisation that is not compromised in any manner whatsoever, but we don’t live in that world. People have to use cars and they have put to petrol in their cars, and that petrol is made by Shell or BP.
In order to get things done it is necessary, unfortunately – or perhaps even fortunately – to make compromises. But as long as you understand that you’re making a compromise, and as long as you understand the whole trade-off and exactly what that trade-off is and that you are balancing a number of different players with each other, you are not becoming dependent. And that’s a good rule not just for media startups, but also for journalists themselves. In my experience the best journalists are those that predominantly work for one news institution but also have one foot in others, or one foot in academia. They have a sense that they have another outlet, and that tends to keep their ‘home’ newspaper honest as well.
For example, look at the James Risen case. James Risen was a New York Times reporter who had information about NSA air surveillance back in 2003. The NYT sat on that for 18 months, intentionally, across the US election. Risen informed the NYT that he was going to publish this book containing that information, and as a result the NYT then published his story.
SY: How much self-censorship and/or censorship goes on in the mainstream media?
JA: It’s almost all censorship. The majority of censorship is selectivity, so it is the decision to do one story and not another, to interview one person and not another. That’s the way that the bulk of censorship occurs, and those decisions are made as a result of personal or shared experience. And what happens if you don’t tow the party line? People are compromised, and their employment opportunities or social opportunities…
It’s obvious if you think about it. Let’s take a society like the United Kingdom – about 70 million people. A study was done on news stories in the UK, where the majority are generated by newspapers and picked up by TV networks. There are around 70 news stories each day in the UK, on different subjects. That’s one news story per million people in the UK, per day. But just consider your own family or your own business, and how many interesting rumours or stories you pick up in your own life. The idea that there is only one interesting story per million people is absurd.
Take a country like Iceland, with a population of three hundred thousand. That would suggest that the Icelandic press should only publish one story every three days. So that whittling down from where things would be if the UK was proportionate to Iceland – throwing out all those stories that would naturally be there – that is done by selectivity, which is performed according to political and psychological biases, and the fears of the journalists and editors concerned.
Here’s a hard example. In the UK they have something called the Defence Advisory Board [The Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee]. It has monthly meetings with the editors of the newspapers, and they have agreements about what should and shouldn’t be published.
SY: Our previous interviewee Noam Chomsky argued in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ that the primary role of the mass media is to mobilise public support for the elite interests. I asked him if anything has changed since then to the media landscape. He said, “as far as we can see, the basic analysis we made is essentially unchanged”, despite the mainstream perception that the Internet has given rise to citizen journalism and undermined the power of the traditional “manufacturers of consent”. Obviously, WikiLeaks has done a lot on this front, but do you think Chomsky’s view is relevant today?
JA: It’s still true in so far as how Chomsky was talking about the relationship between successful large organisations and domestic populations. It is no longer true in all respects. National media or established media organisations principally based in one territory are now able to project their view of the world onto other territories. There are examples like Russia Today, or CCTV. And many national newspapers that have a large following outside their own territory are gearing their content to maximize the power of national elites. They espouse positions that undermine the power of national elites in other countries. That’s an important development for the mainstream press -internationalization of readership.
SY: You’re talking about Al Jazeera, CCTV, Russia Today and so on?
JA: They are the big ones in terms of impact, but national newspapers which are geared toward domestic populations are nonetheless still often read internationally now. So while their content is not pushed on other populations through marketing, nonetheless people are able to read them through Internet recommendations. I’ve seen that phenomenon producing important results. For example, WikiLeaks has an international readership in English. The other way things have changed is – and I don’t mean social media per se here – the increasing ability for individuals to communicate with each other outside their own regions. Information has been obtained and published through small publications, and it has then spread en masse through individual communication networks – and happened rapidly, before censorship could be applied.
SY: Ferguson was reported through Twitter before being picked up by the press…
JA: You had RT going down there. The combination of social media and individuals talking about what was happening. It was through these individual networks and social networks, and then RT whipped it up and acted as an amplifier, to the point where the mainstream press felt they had to get onto the issue. They got on the issue predominantly to demonise it, and then eventually to co-opt certain elements. So basically like ‘bankers are bad, but the rest of the system is OK’.
But it’s also a time of great vibrancy for new publications, and for middle size startups like Vice, for instance. Vice has many problems – Rupert Mu
rdoch has bought a 5 per cent stake, and 15 per cent has gone off to one of the cable companies – but nonetheless it is basically an organisation that is more hungry for growth than it is for careful control of its content and that’s something that we’re seeing in several hundred different publications around the world. Now, those publications will eventually be consolidated and integrated. Conde Nast has already done that with the previous generation, including Wired magazine, Reddit, the New Yorker online, etc. They have pulled them together and created an increasingly conservative organisation. So these consolidations will happen. They will happen reasonably quickly because the Internet encourages economies of scale.
But each time we have a new technical platform – for example, mobile phones or a change of web standards – it tends to be the case that a new entrant who is not constrained by existing operations grows much faster. The problem is that some of the large organisations realize this as well. So if you look at Google, Google is actually an organisation with very little innovation. It depicts itself as an innovative organisation; it did improve the algorithmic efficiency of search engines. It was not, by any means the first search engine.
Nearly all the innovations that people think are Google’s have come from acquisitions. YouTube was acquired, Android was acquired. Most of what people perceive to be Google innovations are actually Google acquisitions. So if you have the largest player gobbling up the new entrants then we aren’t going to see that vibrancy as previously seen. Now, traditionally perhaps we would see anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws used to prevent those kinds of acquisitions. However there is no international antitrust law, because we are dealing with multinational companies that operate at scale across the whole Internet. There is no effective antitrust method to stop monopolization.
SY: What is your perspective on ‘citizen journalism’?
JA: The phrase is overplayed. But I think we should separate it into what I call ‘bystander journalism’ and freelance journalism. Bystander journalism is when you happen to be in a place at a certain time and you take a photo of an event and report what you saw. But you usually don’t do that. And the information just happens to be valuable. Especially photos and videos, which are harder to fake and therefore don’t need any more external credibility. In the case of freelance journalism a person makes it their occupation, or part time occupation, to become an expert in some particular area, or an expert journalist in reporting about the world. And they can sell their work to newspapers.
I don’t think this matters much. What matters is whether it is done well. Very often it is not done well. But then, the standards in the mainstream press are appallingly low.
SY: There was a comment I saw in your interview with John Pilger that you disclosed some materials to citizen journalists first but they didn’t do anything. Why did you not rely on the so-called ‘citizen journalists’? Why did you rely on the traditional fourth estate like the Guardian and the New York Times instead of the new media players like bloggers and non-mainstream media outlets like new media and informal media?
JA: Back in 2007 when WikiLeaks was just starting, I knew from my previous experience that we could get leaks – a lot of them. We could get a quality of information that could eclipse the research capacity of the mainstream press, and anyway the mainstream press had biases. And so we threw our material open to all these citizen journalists and commenters.
The result was that generally, citizen journalists were completely useless, with some exceptions. The market has improved, to be fair, but I realized that you have to look at the economy of why people do things. Most ‘citizen journalists’ are surviving on surplus labour. They have something else that subsidizes them, whether employment or a pension, or whatnot. And then they engage in this other activity. So you have to question why they do it. A lot of the reason seems to be the desire to build a name for themselves, or to demonstrate their political position to their peers. The easiest way of doing that is to see what’s on the front page of the New York Times and, using more words, essentially say ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’. And because it’s so cost effective in relation to the desired outcome, that’s what is done. If you look at popular blog sites like Tumblr or WordPress, or microblogs like Twitter, you actually see that the overwhelming majority of it is commentary on the mainstream press, and repeating and forwarding those stories from the mainstream press which people feel back up their position. They can position themselves amongst their peers by taking a position.
We published a fantastic document on the War on Iraq, a classified document from the US Army Ground Intelligence Center on the assault against Fallujah in 2004. Fallujah even at that time was viewed to be the worst example of the US occupation of Iraq. It was an example of the clearest violation of the laws of war, and so it was a hot topic and here was proof of what had happened that day, written up by the US military themselves. It was a document which I did not need to analyse, and that WikiLeaks staff did not need to analyse to great depth. It was easy to read, and it was on a controversial topic that a lot of people said they were interested in. So we thought we could put it out there and inevitably a lot of people would write about it, because many, many people were talking about Fallujah and saying how bad it was. The result was nothing. No one did a thing. It wasn’t until we contacted some professors who were friends of ours, and a friend in one of the news wires, that it got a proper write-up and analysis. That’s because it takes time and effort. And if you can position yourself amongst your peers without taking any time and effort, and that’s what your goal is – then why would you bother?
SY: What do you think the potential of crowdfunding to democratize the media landscape? Most recently, investigative journalists like John Pilger have used the method to finance their reporting. By freeing journalists and media organisations from the influence of media moguls and advertisers, do you think it can open the window for independent journalism?
JA: I hope so! But it hasn’t been determined yet. In the case of WikiLeaks, we have mostly been crowdfunded throughout our whole history. However WikiLeaks has a worldwide base reporting on high-profile conflicts. It’s hard – if we didn’t have that worldwide base and publish in such scale, then we wouldn’t break even through crowdfunding. So we have to say that there are some examples of where it has been done successfully. It may just be a matter of adjusting the parameters to increase the ease with which it can be done.
SY: This form of media will necessarily get rid of the ‘middle man’ like editors and curators and connect the readers and journalists directly, and this is what Byline is doing. The only criterion for whether a journalistic project will be able to take place is whether readers want it or not. What’s your thought on such form of media that takes out the middlemen like curators and editors?
JA: The more sources of funding there are for journalism, the better, because journalism is constrained by its funders and their particular political views, their worldview, and their business interests. So the more types of funding we can get, be they crowdfunding for individual journalists; or some novel form of stock investment scheme; whether they are mutual societies; whether they are subscription or advertising-based funding models; or public jour
nalism funded from tax revenues spent at the discretion of the government; or whether there is constitutional garnishing of tax funds for independent bodies, spent in accordance with population surveys. We need all these things to gain different perspectives.
SY: The analysis of Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, is that the fourth estate has been killed by a few unaccountable Silicon Valley companies: “News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.” In some sense, it’s not Rupert Murdoch that controls the distribution of news, but Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg. Simply put, do you prefer Eric Schmidt to Rupert Murdoch?
JA: I would prefer neither. Google collects extensive amounts of information on every single person who uses the Internet. It tracks nearly every single web page you go to. Even if you think you are not using Google, you are, because those websites [you do visit] use Google. It collects information from Android phones in extraordinary detail on people’s movements and interests – and of course, everything they search for, and their emails if they use Gmail, and what videos they watch on YouTube.
Google’s real business is the integration business. It’s not a search business, it’s not an advertising businesses – it’s an integration business. They take hundreds of sources of information across the world, they purchase startups that gained users, and they integrate all this information to build up bigger, richer profiles on people, building it into a larger repository of information, which they then use to train their artificial intelligence algorithms. YouTube has become the largest collection of human video footage, which is being used to train Google’s artificial intelligence algorithm, which will go into its drones. It has bought many companies that navigate the world, using material collected by Google maps and Android phones, so it’s a massive integrationist project.
SY: But there are some people that can ask why this is bad. I mean, doesn’t it help search what we want to?
JA: Philosophically, this is the tyranny of efficiency – that which is more efficient must be good. But that is not true. If suddenly you go from one person having no weapons, to another person having a stick, to one person having a rifle, to another person having a gun, it’s not necessarily an improvement.
Put that aside. Look at Google’s increasing monopoly power – Google’s geometrically increasing monopoly power. In terms of media, we’ve seen in the past ten years a great flourishing as a result of disconnecting distribution from content production. That’s what’s really freed it up. The two things that really freed up the media landscape are the tremendous decrease in cost, and disconnecting distribution from content production. Google and Facebook and Twitter and AT&T and Cable & Wireless had been following that model over the last few years. In the last few years there has been vertical integration and increasing political control in content production and content distribution. For example, Facebook, and all these organisations, are increasingly mandating new sets of rules about what can be published and what cannot be published. And these rules are increasing in number with great rapidity. These form a new system of social laws, created by fiat, not produced by a parliament, not produced by democracy, and with no balancing power or judiciary. They are now applied to essentially everyone who uses the Internet.
Just two days ago, there was the issue with antiwar.com, a libertarian right-wing anti-war, anti-militarist website in the US. They published many great essays in the past ten years, including essays on the Abu Ghraib scandal. Google decided that they would not accept its advertising brokering services to appear on any webpage where there were photos of war, because they are gruesome. So Google has decided a very important social policy, which is that there was not to be proper reportage of war. By fiat.
Please stay tuned for the final part of the series, coming within the next two weeks. Byline thanks Alex Nunns (@alexnunns) for his assistance in editing this interview.