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50 People Who Matter 2010 | 23. Julian Assange

WikiLeaks legend.

The arrival of WikiLeaks is one of the most exciting developments in the enduring struggle of ordinary people for the right to call secret power to account. This is what journalism should do.

For all the lip-service paid to Edmund Burke's idea of a fourth estate, the media remain an extension of the established order. The current wars demonstrate this. Instead of exposing the lies that have led to the carnage, journalists, with honourable exceptions, have amplified and echoed them. Scott McClellan, George W Bush's former press secretary, says his administration relied on the media's "complicit enablers".

WikiLeaks, says its founder Julian Assange, has "created a space that permits a form of journalism which lives up to the name that journalism has always tried to establish for itself". This year, WikiLeaks has released tens of thousands of official documents that describe the casual, almost industrial killing of civilians, assassination squads, and attempts at cover-up.

Anyone watching the leaked cockpit video of an Apache helicopter gunning down cameramen and children in Baghdad will not forget the pilot's reaction: "Nice." Having witnessed the brutalising effects of war, I felt like cheering when this was exposed and I read that it was viewed 4.8 million times in one week. This is the new "space" for a truth-telling we need urgently, as great power promotes its "perpetual war" and strives for what it calls "information dominance".

I have got to know Julian Assange, and what strikes me most about him is the unabashed morality he invests in WikiLeaks. It is unusual to hear the words: "The goal is justice, the method is transparency." He reminds me of one of our compatriots, Wilfred Burchett, the courageous reporter who incurred the wrath of the powerful by exposing the "atomic plague" of the Hiroshima bomb. Like Burchett, Assange has made some serious enemies for blowing such a loud whistle; the Pentagon has already threatened to "terminally marginalise" WikiLeaks. And this is his great risk and his honour.

I asked him what he had learned most from his glimpses of rampant power. "In one way or another I've been reading generals' emails since I was 17," he said (he is 39), "and what I see now is a vast, sprawling estate that is becoming more and more secretive and uncontrolled. "This is not a sophisticated conspiracy; it is a movement of self-interest to produce an end result that is [the wars in] Iraq and Afghanistan, which are used to wash money out of the US tax base and back to [arms] companies like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon." Another release of leaked documents is due soon.

I salute such principled audacity.

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John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.