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Andrew Neil: could there be a silver lining to the cloud over journalism?

Andrew Neil
Andrew Neil, a leading figure in British journalism

It is singularly depressing to see how the UK and the USA are treating journalists. But are journalists beginning to revolt. Read on!

A surprising announcement

Andrew Neil is a rightward-leaning journalist who worked for Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers, contributed to The Mail, and was founding chairman of GB News. He also worked for the BBC for 25 years, was an early advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has generally been a voice for the British establishment.

It was therefore surprising when, in The Mail of 17th June, he came out vigorously opposing the High Court’s decision to extradite Julian Assange to the United States. In doing this, he joined a group of dissident commentators including Craig Murray, Peter Oborne, Patrick Cockburn and the veteran Daniel Ellsberg, famed for spilling the Pentagon Papers. Murray had been particularly outspoken about the draconian and cruel way in which HMG has treated Assange. Oborne described Priti Patel’s decision as turning investigative journalism into a criminal act and licensing the US to mercilessly hunt down offenders wherever they can be found, bring them to justice and punish them with maximum severity. The mainstream media has been generally unsupportive of or hostile to Assange, though the Guardian has rallied to his cause, and the Mail has now published Andrew Neil’s article.

Neil prefaced his article by denouncing Assange as:

“no crusader in shining armour. He is reckless, cavalier with people’s lives, narcissistic, a ‘sexual predator’. Careless of his personal hygiene, he is often his own worst enemy. He lets down his friends and repels his allies”.

Many commentators dispute this, with Daniel Ellsberg claiming that far from being cavalier, Assange did all he could to remove names of confidential sources, but that his partners in the press were “pressing him to get it out”.

But once Neil had posited his reservations, he made his key points, saying that:

Andrew Neil
Julian Assange after a long spell in Belmarsh high security prison

“it is thanks to Assange that we know many appalling things that America would prefer we didn’t know. He does not deserve to spend the rest of his life in some high-tech American hellhole for doing what should come naturally to all good journalists - exposing what powerful people don’t want to be exposed. - - - But if he ends up incarcerated, journalists all over the world will wonder if it’s worth the risk when they are presented with classified information that deserves to see daylight in the public interest. I have no doubt that is why the U.S. authorities are pursuing him — and maybe even why our Home Office is complicit.”

Daniel Ellsberg, aged 91 years
Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War,

Significantly, Neil cites Daniel Ellsberg, who had previously made another important statement, criticising the US Supreme Court’s rejection of Assange's appeal against extradition. Not only did it prejudice individual journalists but it was “even more sinister”, because it struck directly at press freedom and the First Amendment. This is because Assange is a publisher, like the New York Times or The Guardian – “the only non-government profession mentioned in the constitutional Bill of Rights”.

Britain’s National Security Bill

Britain’s Home Secretary as of 5 July (Priti Patel) wants to build on Assange’s extradition with an Act that further advances her agenda. Open Democracy and Declassified UK have analysed it concluding that it would criminalise much public interest journalism, their main points being that:

  • Journalists and others who receive some funding from foreign governments are at risk of committing offences under a bill that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

  • It would be an offence to disclose leaked information that would prejudice the “safety or interests of” the UK. The definition of such prejudice would be at the discretion of ministers and could not be challenged in the courts.

  • There would, moreover, be no public interest defence.

  • It would grant immunity to ministers or spies who assist in serious overseas crimes.

The problem here is that the proposed legislation would allow Government to prosecute perfectly legitimate work. Conservative backbencher David Davis has warned of the risk to NGOs like Reprieve, Privacy International, Transparency International – all of which have been given grants by overseas governments while carrying out important transparency work. The Act could moreover shield from prosecution officials who provide information to foreign partners leading to someone being tortured or unlawfully killed in a drone strike. The victims of those crimes could then be prevented from seeking justice in court.

Past crimes forgotten in the war against Russia

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), key US and British ally that the CIA holds responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi

When Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October 2018, it was sad news for Middle Eastern journalism, not to speak of Khashoggi’s family and friends. He died in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, apparently under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia. The Chief Prosecutor of Istanbul quickly indicted 20 suspects whom Saudi Arabia refused to extradite. Then the CIA leaked its conclusion that MBS had ordered the assassination, and UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard accused the Saudi state of the “deliberate, premeditated execution”.

As Donald Trump supported MBS, the report was not declassified until after Joe Biden’s inauguration in Jan 2021. Even then, Biden soft-pedalled his campaign promise to make the Saudi regime “pay the price” for the killing of Khashoggi; the US Government sanctioned 26 officials but exempted MBS. Realpolitic increasingly came to dominate the priorities of the USA, which by June 2022 was focused on Russia and Ukraine, and minimizing disruption of oil supplies. It therefore opted for a full reset of relations with Saudi Arabia. In April, the Turkish court stopped the trial of Saudi nationals, handing it over to the same Saudi authorities who had refused extradition. After this, President Erdogan then publicly embraced MBS and sought trade, investment and assistance to help Turkey deal with a worsening economic crisis.

Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the The Independent
Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the The Independent, and critic of "embedded" journalism. He also writes for Counterpunch.

Patrick Cockburn puts it this way:

Pundits openly declare that opposing Russia and China successfully requires conciliating states whose repression of millions-strong religious and ethnic groups, like the Shia in Saudi Arabia and the Kurds in Turkey, should now be dismissed as ‘casual cruelties’ and ‘human rights abuses’. In future, these failings, so the pundits argue, should attract only the gentlest of taps on the wrist, so that MBS and Erdogan can be recruited to freedom’s cause”.

and Israel gets a free pass to kill journalists

Israeli police attack mourners at the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh
Israeli police attack mourners at the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Catholic US-Palestinian journalist working for Al Jazeera

Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered on May 11, following which Israeli violence marred her funeral procession. Israel tried unsuccessfully to deflect blame onto Palestinian armed groups, but these stories failed to stand up in the face of investigations by a range of journalistic sources, including Al Jazeera (her employer), Bellingcat, CNN, Associated Press, the Washington Post and the New York Times, which between them examined audio, video, acoustic and ballistic evidence, along with eyewitness accounts. Their reporting has generated enormous pressure on the Biden administration to launch its own investigation of Shireen’s death.

Even though Shireen was a Palestinian-American, Biden has done his best to ignore the case. The US has now admitted that the shot was likely fired “unintentionally” from Israeli positions, a result of “tragic circumstances”. This amazing statement suggests that US officials use telepathy to ascertain the intentions of Israeli soldiers. US forensic examiners claimed the bullet was too badly damaged to say who fired the shot.

The Palestinians have no reason trust Israeli justice, and little more to trust the Americans. This is what the distinguished Israeli journalist Gideon Levy said about them:

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy, who writes for Haaretz and winner of Israel's top award for journalism, the Sokolov Award, in 2021.

“It’s difficult to imagine a more clumsy, unprofessional, ridiculous and even insulting mobilization in the service of Israeli propaganda - - - America is telling Israel: Keep on killing journalists, as far as we’re concerned it’s fine. We will always say you didn’t mean to.”

Britain’s performance has, if anything, been worse. Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, was “saddened” by the killing of Abu Akleh, but failed to condemn it and didn’t even demand a probe. Palestine’s last chance probably lies with the International Court of Justice.

Over the last 22 years, Israel has killed at least 45 Palestinian journalists in the occupied territories. Shireen’s murder is very similar to the killing of the young Gaza journalist Yasser Murtaja in 2018, both in terms of the circumstances (likewise he wore a Press flak jacket) and the lack of accountability. As Tony Greenstein explains, Israel has a long history of targeted assassinations going back 50 years.

Conclusion: could there be a silver lining?

An over-riding feature of the Julian Assange’s case is minimal coverage by the mainstream media. Daniel Ellsberg explains this phenomenon, saying that:

“I think it’s a question of (journalists) retaining respectability, not with their readers, but with their official sources - - -. Very few people tend to have the moral courage to take any risk whatsoever, be it risking their careers or their relationships. Even when it comes to exposing illegal wars that are undermining the Constitution – even then, you don’t find people willing to take any risks at all. And then there are people like Julian Assange who have the moral courage to face such risks, the legal charges as well as the physical danger. I believe this world will not survive without more people like him”.

It is however somewhat encouraging that Andrew Neil has spoken out in defence of Assange, as have over 1,800 journalists from 100 countries who have signed a National Union of Journalists petition. Similarly, a range of international news outlets have taken the trouble to independently investigate the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, finding in favour of their competitor, Al Jazeera. This suggests a growing awareness among journalists that their entire profession is under threat.

Could this trickle of dissent become a torrent? Let us have your comments below.


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