On 4 April 2013, I was invited to speak very briefly at the protest outside the Institute of Public Affairs’ 70th anniversary dinner, on behalf of WACA, the Wikileaks Australian Citizens Alliance. Events rapidly overtook the planned activities, but I meant to say something like the following…
Well, what an auspicious occasion we find ourselves at tonight. What inauspicious guests.
This sort of provocation — MC Bolt, guest of honour Murdoch, $500 a head fundraising bonanza for the Institute of Public Affairs – complete with Abbott, Rinehart, a full rogues’ gallery in attendance — this demands witness.
So who are the Institute of Public Affairs?
A think tank, whose list of funders has run the full gamut of oil, mining, and tobacco companies.
Sponsoring climate denialists, slamming unions, indigenous groups and NGOs — other than themselves, of course — the shock troops of causes from corporate capitalist conservative to climate crackpot.
But the affairs of the Institute of Public Affairs are not, in fact, public affairs. Donations are secret. The executive director explains his contempt for democracy: “Australian democracy is not so sophisticated that companies can reveal they support free market think tanks, because as soon as they do they will be attacked”. Funny about that.
They maintain tax-deductible status. The type of tax-deductibility that requires donations go through a scientific committee for scientific research purposes. I’d love to see their committee.
Because those dozens of public meetings against the carbon tax really looked like scientific research to me. As did those full-page newspaper ads.
But without disclosure, it just looks illegal. Innocent until proven guilty of course. But it is well known that secrecy has its advantages in matters of tax evasion.
* * *
The IPA may well be best ignored, much of the time. Or a good source of amusement.
But like all good PR firms, the IPA has the money and connections to project itself into public consciousness — with regular opinion columns and TV appearances, including, and especially, on the ABC.
And although traditional media may be in decline, TV, radio and newspaper are still the main way people get information — or, as the case may be, disinformation.
Corporations understand that funding the IPA amplifies their voice, laundering it through a supposedly “independent” source. If the IPA didn’t promote its donors’ interests it would rapidly go out of business.
Corporate donations to institutions like the IPA are protection money, pure and simple. The IPA protects corporations from democracy.
* * *
But for secretive, illegitimate institutions with powerful friends, recent times provide new antidotes.
When Julian Assange and I and others set up Wikileaks, we had many reasons, but one of the reasons was — the state of the media.
We all know that the mainstream media, by and large, feeds us shit. We all know that the Murdoch press serves up a steady stream of militarism, xenophobia, and class warfare against the poor.
Murdoch’s operations are quite a machine. Before the Iraq war, every single one of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers editorialised in favour of war. When it comes to the important issues, the “free” press follows the master in lockstep.
But Murdoch’s editors didn’t need a phone call from Rupert to dictate the party line. If they hadn’t internalised it they wouldn’t be there. And so we find stable, tightly ideologically controlled doctrinal institutions in formally democratic societies.
In the face of this wholesale corruption of truth and accountability, Wikileaks struck back, bypassing traditional media. Leaks went directly to those who took them seriously.
With leaked documents in hand, the press came to Wikileaks for the story — as they come to think tanks like the IPA for opinion columns.
Except Wikileaks was speaking fact and truth.
* * *
The IPA claims to be protecting freedom of speech — by which they mean things like, the freedom of Andrew Bolt to falsely defame indigenous Australians.
Some comparisons are instructive.
Bolt’s false defamation of private, non-powerful, individuals, got him a rap over the knuckles.
Wikileaks, on the other hand, revealed truthful, vast, encyclopaedic details of diplomatic machinations and human rights abuses — and got a banking blockade, a whole of government taskforce, an ongoing espionage investigation, and high-level calls for its leader’s assassination.
Some years earlier, Wikileaks revealed alleged tax evasion by a Swiss bank and its Cayman Island subsidiary — and I got sued personally.
No, those who speak of “freedom” to maliciously and falsely abuse and defame do not speak of freedom of speech. They speak of the freedom of children’s tantrums.
Now, there are problems with free speech in Australia. Our constitutional protections on freedom of speech are woefully limited.
But if we speak seriously of free speech, we do not speak of Bolt; we speak of those like Wikileaks.
* * *
Think tanks are rhetorical brawn, not brains. Think army tanks — rapid, aggressive, weaponized thought. Sharp, but not deep. A sharp sound bite is all that matters.
But serious thought, scientific, intellectual thought, is careful. We must understand the world in order to change it. Corporate think tanks blast away subtleties, along with anything contradicting their donors’ interests. As Bertrand Russell said, “the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
The question of how to establish a viable, independent, free media is not an easy one — but no important social questions are easy.
However, there is an easy part of the answer. We need new forms of media to replace the kind of disinformation machine gathered above us tonight — to toss it into the dustbin of history.
Many, including Wikileaks, have made a start. There is a long way to go.