Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair
“Your honour, I represent the United States government”. The Westminster Magistrates Court had been left with little doubt by the opening words of the legal team marshalled against the face of WikiLeaks. Julian Assange was being targeted by the imperium itself, an effort now only garnished by the issue of skipping bail in 2012. Would the case on his extradition to the US centre on the matter of free speech and the vital scrutinising role of the press?
Thomas Jefferson, who had his moments of venomous tetchiness against the press outlets of his day, was clear about the role of the fourth estate. A government with newspapers rather than without, he argued to Edward Carrington in 1787, was fundamental so long as “every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” To Thomas Cooper, he would write in November 1802 reflecting that the press was “the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced… all means of a general effort [are] taken away.” The press provided the greatest of counterweights against oppressive tendencies, being the “only security” available.
Not so, now. The fourth estate has been subjected to a withering. The State has become canny about the nature of the hack profession, providing incentives, attempting to obtain favourable coverage, and, above all, avoiding dramatic reforms where necessary. An outfit like WikiLeaks is a rebuke to such efforts, to the hypocrisy of decent appearances, as it is to those in a profession long in tooth and, often, short in substance.
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