Why defending Julian Assange remains absolutely the right thing to do
06/09/2020 Comments Off on Why defending Julian Assange remains absolutely the right thing to do
7 September 2020 — This commentary was submitted in early July to the London Review of Books in response to its many comments about Julian Assange over the years. They rejected it. I am sharing it now as the UK court is about to hear the case for and against Julian Assange’s extradition, that is, whether or not to send him to a death sentence in Donald Trump’s USA this week after the UK having been complicit in his being imprisoned in solitary confinement for almost ten years already — for being a journalist.
On 18 June 2020 the London Review of Books (LRB) published a commentary by Patrick Cockburn in defence of Julian Assange (Julian Assange in Limbo, 18 June 2020, p.29-30). I was going to reply commending his stance. But before I had time, the LRB published a letter on 2 July from Patrick O’Connor, reminding us that Wikileaks and Assange himself in some emails had cooperated with Russian security surrogates and the Trump campaign to damage Hilary Clinton. It crossed my mind to check whether the LRB had published other articles about him in the last decade, during which time many people have turned against him. I knew of only one article on 6 March 2014, by Andrew O’Hagan, which I’ll come back to. A quick search showed they had published a number of articles about him and others that merely mention him, about a dozen or so all told.
What follows is a summary of how the LRB’s authors have portrayed Assange and the political issues surrounding his journalism since 2010. It started with Andrew O’Hagan (Short Cuts, With the Hackerati, LRB, 19 August 2010), focusing on how Assange looked and dressed: “If hackers possess a look, then Julian Assange would probably be best placed to carry it onto the runways at New York fashion week. Except that the founder of WikiLeaks – brown cargo pants, computer rucksack, and this season’s must-have, prematurely silver hair – would certainly be arrested as he attempted to cross into the land of the free…” Then, going on to the politically important issues involved, he describes Assange as follows:
“[H]e represents the democratic instinct at its most blunt.”
“Contemptible? Heroic? Assange may simply be fulfilling the journalist’s role in the new ways allowed by the internet.”
But he couldn’t stay focused on the real issues, he had to sidetrack onto Assange’s personality too in his inimitable, judgmental way: “Assange himself, meanwhile, behaves like someone balanced quite delicately between ego-less humanitarian, autistic showman and outrageous monomaniac.”
Jeremy Harding briefly showed a sort of respect for Wikileaks’ accomplishments in describing how the French were not yet sure of Assange or the issue of rights in: (Short Cuts, Les WikiLeaks, LRB, 16 December 2010):
“French opinion is uncertain about white knights like Julian Assange, and still slow to pick up the language of rights, as spoken by WikiLeaks. In the world of governance, rights culture is one of the great climate-changers, melting away old assumptions about the exercise of power, just as the web is doing.”
A month later, Glen Newey discussed the significance of the leaks in a wider political context (Diary Life with WikiLeaks, LRB, 6 January 2011), and argued that: “‘free’ speech incurs opportunity costs” and argued that whether or not secret or confidential information should be leaked should be decided “with reference to the public interest”. He leaves open the question of whether the information leaked by Wikileaks met this criterion. But in regard to Assange refusing to go to Sweden for questioning, Newey reminds us of: “the case of Muhammad al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza – Egyptian asylum seekers abducted from Stockholm by the US in 2001 with Swedish complicity, then taken back to Egypt and tortured”.
He closes by saying, with some irony: “a copious leak can do the state some service…. [However], it’s a service for which the state may prove signally ungrateful.”
Two weeks later, Slavoj Žižek takes Newey’s argument a major step further (Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks, LRB, 20 January 2011): “There has been, from the outset, something about [Wikileaks’] activities that goes way beyond liberal conceptions of the free flow of information. We shouldn’t look for this excess at the level of content. The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything… What WikiLeaks threatens is the formal functioning of power…. that might reach beyond the limits of representative democracy…. However, it is a mistake to assume that revealing the entirety of what has been secret will liberate us.”
But Žižek concludes: “[T]oday we face the shameless cynicism of a global order whose agents only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights and so on. Through actions like the WikiLeaks disclosures, the shame – our shame for tolerating such power over us – is made more shameful by being publicised.”
Against the demand for Assange’s extradition, Jeremy Harding points out, 18 months later, that “In Assange’s favour is the suggestion that any charge against him would also have to apply to Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times” – whose newspaper published some of the leaked information. Further, he says that Wikileaks and then Bradley Manning altered the global discussion by “exhaustive confirmation that the war in Iraq had been a terrible mistake”. Who among us would disagree with that conclusion today? Yet at the time, the information was explosive. (I Could’ve Sold to Russia or China, LRB, 19 July 2012)
At some point during these years, Andrew O’Hagan was contracted to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography. In 2014, he outed himself as such in the LRB, (Ghosting, LRB, 6 March 2014). I wrote a letter on 29 March to the editor about it at the time, but it was not published. As an editor myself, I believed it was unethical to publish that article as the contractual agreement was he would remain anonymous. In those often below-the-belt 25,900 words, I think O’Hagan did Assange a great deal of damage, belittling him and making him look very bad personally. What he went through as a ghostwriter was clearly very difficult, and I think he wanted to get his own back. Far worse, however, he blamed Julian Assange for his own need to have his experience seen and heard – on the grounds that he himself is a writer. (Letter to LRB, by Marge Berer, 29 March 2014, unpublished; posted in Berer Blog, 9 August 2015)
On the other hand, perhaps learning the details of Assange’s experiences firsthand stopped O’Hagan from seeing him as someone at a hacker’s fashion show. He wrote (Text-Inspectors, LRB 24 September 2014) that: “Surveillance in the UK is an implicitly sanctioned habit that has smashed the moral framework of journalism. Protection of sources is not an adornment, not some optional garment worn only when it suits, but a basic necessity in the running of a free press in a fair democracy. Snowden proved that, but not to the satisfaction of Britain’s home affairs establishment, or the police, who like to behave as if all freedoms are optional at the point of delivery.” He points out that Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor, had recently said that “source confidentiality is in peril”, that Glen Greenwald was also at risk of prosecution, not just Julian Assange, and that Edward Snowden taught us that “our freedom is being diluted by a manufactured fear of the evil that surveillance ‘protects’ us from”.
O’Hagan also acknowledges: “The first thing that amazed me about Julian Assange was how fearful he was – and how right, as it turned out – about the internet being used as a tool to remove our personal freedom. That surprised me, because I’d naively assumed that all hackers and computer nerds were in love with the net. In fact, the smarter ones were suspicious of it and understood all along that it could easily be abused by governments and corporations.”
Then the reporting goes downhill. In September 2015, in a review of a novel that had nothing to do with Assange, Adam Mars-Jones quotes a whole paragraph from the novel describing one of its characters, a barely disguised Julian Assange: “[T]here was a warrant out for his arrest for something sexual, nasty sexual. The consensus was confusing. He had raped someone, or he had not and the charges were trumped up. He was a free speech hero or international threat or both, and either being prosecuted for that or a pervert. Point is, he shopped around and got asylum.” Thus, the accusation of rape against Assange was inserted into the public space in a book review through guilt by association. (Sheer Cloakery, 23 September 2015)
In February 2016, Daniel Soar wrote a “cute” piece about Assange and Ai Wei Wei, “two bad boys” he called them, one locked up in the Ecuadorian embassy for three years by that time and the other locked up for three months in China. The first half of the article is about Ai Wei Wei and queries the friendship between the two men only because they are “famous”. The second half of the article gets serious, however. Soar argues: “It isn’t Assange’s fault that he needs to keep himself close to the surface of the news: he has been inside the same building for – the counter on WikiLeaks currently reads – 1886 days and nights, and, like Scheherazade, if he doesn’t keep telling stories, he’ll disappear. But the phenomenon that was WikiLeaks depended on facelessness and anonymity. Not only for pragmatic reasons – leakers and whistleblowers have to be allowed the security of invisibility if they are to risk releasing dangerous secrets – but for reasons, too, of effective dissent.”
And by the end very serious: “Assange takes care to manage – or tries to manage – the stories about him. He needs to, because there are a lot of them about, not all of them fair: the sexual predator, the prima donna, the egotist, the reckless betrayer. And, after all, when he ran out of secrets, his image was all he had left. Since he first exploded into view, those in the secret-disclosing business who are sticking it to the Man have understood that once you’ve burned up those secrets, you’re faced with a choice. Either you go supernova, like Snowden, or – like Assange – you turn into a black hole.” (Short Cuts, Julian Assange, LRB, 18 February 2016)
Assange wasn’t managing well by then, and as people began deserting him, his personality was again dissected and the accusation of sexual predator made front page news. I think this did for him. In today’s world, there are certain accusations that, once fired at someone, make them a permanent pariah whether they turn out to be true or not. “Sexual predator/rapist” is one of them. I wonder if anyone in Sweden ever researched or questioned the behaviour of the Swedish authorities and whether these accusations were indeed cooked up, as Patrick Cockburn has suggested is possible.
James Meek, in an article about changes in the newspaper world and at the Guardian for 20 years (The Club and the Mob, LRB, 6 December 2018) quotes Alan Rusbridger: “Reflecting on the Guardian’s mutually beneficial but uneasy relationship with Julian Assange during the WikiLeaks affair, Rusbridger writes: ‘I once remarked to a senior intelligence figure that the British and American governments, instead of condemning our role, should go down on their knees in thanks that we were there as a careful filter. Without newspapers, they would be dealing with a much scarier and intractable problem…. How contemptuous Assange would be of such a thought. How he would despise even my contact with such a person, or the fact that I leave him anonymous in this narrative.’” Thus, Rusbridger reveals his own contempt for Assange.
In 2019, in an article about the Trump presidential campaign in 2016 and the involvement of the Russians (How to Get Screwed, LRB, 6 June 2019), David Runciman reports that Assange said: “We believe it would be much better for GOP to win so that the Democrats, media and other liberals would form a bloc to rein in their [the GOP’s] worst qualities”. Well, he got that wrong, didn’t he, and Trump is now after his life. In any case, the extent to which he “supported” Trump may well also be a cooked-up story.
Which leaves for last (to date) Mary Beard on the subject of Germaine Greer’s new book On Rape (The Greer Method, 24 October 2019). Julian Assange gets one sentence yet again, in a book review that is otherwise not about him. Nor does Beard say what Greer actually says about Assange, if anything, but once again Assange and rape are mentioned and linked.
In conclusion, during almost a decade of LRB articles, Assange’s contribution to journalism and exposé of vicious global politics is both taken seriously and supported politically, even while he himself is looked down upon personally. In some of the articles, the mentions are so minor, however, i.e. only a sentence or two and not the subject of the article concerned at all, that I wonder why the mentions were considered worthwhile.
Postscript – the real issue: On 3 July 2020, Reporters without Borders published an open letter calling on the UK government to “release Mr Assange from prison immediately, and block his extradition to the US” where he is facing 175 years in prison – i.e. a death sentence .
The letter says: “The US government has indicted Mr Assange on 18 counts for obtaining, possessing, conspiring to publish and for publishing classified information. The indictment contains 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917 and one charge of conspiring (with a source) to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which uses Espionage Act language. This is the first ever use of such charges for the publication of truthful information in the public interest, and it represents a gravely dangerous attempt to criminalise journalist-source communications and the publication by journalists of classified information, regardless of the newsworthiness of the information and in complete disregard of the public’s right to know.
“On 24 June 2020, the US Department of Justice issued a second superseding indictment against Mr Assange, adding no new charges but expanding on the charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. This new indictment employs a selective and misleading narrative in an attempt to portray Mr Assange’s actions as nefarious and conspiratorial rather than as contributions to public interest reporting.”
The letter was signed by 40 human rights, press freedom and privacy rights organisations on five continents, including Reporters Without Borders, International Federation of Journalists; PEN International and six national PEN branches; International Association of Democratic Lawyers; International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech; Index on Censorship; Head of Europe and Central Asia of Article 19; International Press Centre; International Press Institute; World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters; Association of European Journalists; European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, a range of national groups in Australia, Norway, Palestine, Bahrain, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Turkey, and others.
They think 100% support for the release of Julian Assange from many years of solitary confinement without trial is what is called for. I agree. Human rights are for everyone.