The sight of Julian Assange giving a stream of television interviews from the grounds of an 18th-century country house on the Norfolk-Suffolk borders was, at the very least, a confusion of the cinematic genre the plot has hitherto taken. It was as if Julian Fellowes had been drafted in to finish a script begun by Stieg Larsson. The James Bond villain had stumbled into an Edwardian stately home soap opera. A quick interview with Kay Burley before Carson announces dinner.
It is nearly three weeks since the Guardian and a handful of other news organisations began publishing stories and selected US state department cables based on the 250,000 documents passed to WikiLeaks. In that time the world has changed in a number of interesting ways. Millions of people around the world have glimpsed truths about their rulers and governments that had previously been hidden, or merely suspected.
The cables have revealed wrongdoing, war crimes, corruption, hypocrisy, greed, espionage, double-dealing and the cynical exercise of power on a wondrous scale. We feel some sympathy with the poster on a Guardian comment thread this week who complained of Wiki-fatigue. The revelations have flowed at such a rate that it may be months, or even years, before the full impact of what has been disclosed can be fully absorbed. It is all too easy to feel defeated by the sheer scale of the blurred torrent of information unleashed on the world.
During these three weeks the man who kicked this particular hornet’s nest, Julian Assange, has been arrested, jailed and freed. Hackers have taken revenge on huge corporations accused of aiding those who would dearly like to choke off the organisation he founded and runs. The US government has announced a thoroughgoing review of the principles on which it shares the intelligence it collects. The porous nature of the digital world has been driven home to those in charge of international businesses, banks, armies, governments – and even news and gossip websites. The implications for large state databases are as yet unknown. And now Assange is promising to speed up the release of the documents and to scatter them more broadly around the world.
Though the global implications of what has happened are far reaching, there is an inevitable sense in which the story is, indeed, being reduced to a biopic – the life and times of Julian Assange. In some ways this is a fair representation of events, but it is also limiting, and highly diversionary. There is no question that Assange has a missionary zeal, technical skill and high intelligence, without which the whole WikiLeaks project would never have gained its present prominence and/or notoriety.
In last Sunday’s Observer Henry Porter compared him to the 18th-century libertine, John Wilkes. Wilkes is remembered now as the fearless publisher, editor and politician who fought crucial skirmishes in the journey towards a free press in Britain. He risked exile, imprisonment and death for the right to publish – including the proceedings of parliament. But in his own times he was also regarded as a rake. One biographer has noted how “the reports of his sexual liaisons – both factual and fictitious – leaked from the private realm to fuel the hectic debate over his qualities as a public man”.
The parallels with Assange are hard to ignore. He found himself in Wandsworth prison, not for breaches of the Espionage Act, but because he is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sex offences relating to two women he met earlier this year. To many (though doubtless not to the women) this is a side show to the main event. To others – including Assange and his legal team (who have disparagingly referred to the events as a “honeytrap”) – this is a dark conspiracy to frame him, in much the same way that Al Capone was put out of circulation for tax offences.
It is impossible to make judgments about what happened in private circumstances: that will be for the Swedish courts eventually to decide. But it is wrong that the notion that the allegations are simply a conspiracy or smear should go unexamined. Having been given access to the relevant Swedish police papers – including the womens’ claims and Assange’s rebuttal – we have felt it right to present a brief summary of the nature of the complaints, together with Assange’s response. It is unusual for a sex offence case to be presented outside of the judicial process in such a manner, but then it is unheard of for a defendant, his legal team and supporters to so vehemently and publicly attack women at the heart of a rape case.
As with Wilkes, none of this should have any bearing on the wider question of Assange’s role in bringing the cables into the open. For some years Assange toiled away, largely unnoticed, leaking documents which exposed corruption and wrongdoing by governments and powerful organisations.
It is wholly understandable that the US government should feel both embarrassed and furious at the scale and nature of the material he has been filtering out over the past three weeks. So far the administration has acted with some restraint rather than lash out in some form of retributive fashion. Assange’s legal team believe that this may soon change and that he may soon face charges of an unspecified nature to do with obtaining and publishing the cables. Nor should it be forgotten that Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old private accused of being the original source of the leak, is currently in solitary confinement awaiting a court martial and the prospect of spending the next five decades behind bars.
We and four other news organisations have worked with WikiLeaks over many months in order carefully and responsibly to publish a small number of cables. The first amendment of the American constitution is a formidable bulwark of free speech, rightly admired around the world. As Max Frankel, a former executive editor of the New York Times, recently wrote in these pages, the supreme court defended the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, even though the lead judge, Justice Potter Stewart, was sure it was not in the public interest. It would be dismaying if there was now an attempt to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing the documents. He is clearly in some senses a publisher and journalist as well as a source. In that respect he deserves protection, not criminal indictment.
The broader plan of WikiLeaks is to move beyond the arrangement with the five newspapers currently involved, and to partner with other news organisations who can highlight stories of particular interest to specific regions. We hope that, if so, it is done with due care to anything that might jeopardise individuals or sensitive ongoing operations. The process of editing, contextualising, explanation and redaction is a painstaking one. It is part of the craft of journalism. Journalism is also about disclosure. It is at its best when it is the disclosure of matters of high public interest. Judge Assange on that score, as much as any other.
Sobre las acusaciones que penden en Suecia contra Julian Assange, vea el reportaje en The Guardian, basado en documentos de la policía sueca.