Assange’s arrest – his white beard, wink and ponytail giving him a very woke mixture of metrosexual man, cheeky rebel and Russian dissident – is the latest scene in a life made for film. Now, following a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure (her prisons, in NI anyway, used to faeces-smearing prisoners unlike the bemused Ecuadorians bulk-buying extra-strong Cilit Bang) he faces the possibility of extradition to Sweden or the US to face charges of sexual assault and conspiracy to hack into US government computers.
Depending on who you listen to, Assange is a brave whistleblower/journalist persecuted for revealing the dirty truth of America’s wars or a narcissist and alleged sex pest dangerously indifferent to the consequences of his revelations, for countries or unknown individuals in far-away places.
Still it has been enjoyable watching the contortions of politicians, commentators and other bien-pensants as they try to work out which side they should be on. If only there could be a handy guide to what to think? Some principles perhaps? Or maybe choose according to which gang you want to be in. Or who you dislike most.
If this is about the brave truth-seeking journalist, revealing the nastiness of the US’s illegal war in Iraq (the adjective “illegal” being practically obligatory in this telling) then charging him is a chilling attack on press freedom. All the more so if, as some of his defenders are, one is intoxicated with animosity for the US.
For them, overlooking the fact that Assange’s journalistic ethics are not what they ought to be does not seem difficult. Still, journalism does involve something more than dumping material taken without permission.
Committing illegal acts to obtain the material is a no-no as all those British journalists roundly criticised (often by the same people supporting Assange) for hacking phones would no doubt tell you. Only a cynic would think that perhaps their real crime was to take Murdoch’s shilling
Even more surprising has been the sight of some berating the US about its attitude to journalistic freedom. It is the US – not Britain – which protects press freedom in its Constitution. It is the US which makes it virtually impossible to sue for libel, unlike Britain, whose libel laws allow the rich, the powerful, the unscrupulous to protect themselves from scrutiny and which pioneered an injunction so fearsome that even its mere existence had to be secret.
It is the US which has taken legislative action to stop decisions of British libel courts from being enforced in the US, an extraordinary – and for Britain shaming – decision to take about the laws of a friendly country. It is Britain which sought to jail journalists using a medieval law until stopped by the Court of Appeal (not a part of his CV the shadow Brexit secretary is keen to trumpet). It is Britain which has had its police use surveillance powers on journalists or an MP arrested to obtain details of their sources.
It is Britain which has one party committed to legislative changes which would impose government control of the press via a regulator funded by the son of Britain’s only Fascist leader. Some of those politicians quick to jump to Assange’s defence have not been noted for their defence of journalists harassed by other regimes more to their liking. Their attitude to whistleblowers in their own parties has been distinctly unfriendly. Nor have they been quick to ask why Assange has let himself be used by regimes such as Putin’s Russia or Belarus, neither being keen on press freedom.
Then there are the criticisms of the US’s criminal justice system. Could poor Julian get a fair trial? Certainly the absence of legal aid, high costs, long sentences, pressures to plea bargain make the prospect of facing US justice unappealing. All this has been known for years; yet it did not stop MPs (some of them now loudly opposing any extradition to the US) approving the US-UK Extradition Treaty which makes it so much easier. Surely they cannot have thought it would be only crooked bankers, fraudsters and terrorists who would be caught by its provisions?
Still, if MPs are concerned about people getting a fair trial they might want to look at the the cuts to Legal Aid here, the woeful record of the CPS and police on disclosure of relevant evidence and the degrading of independent, capable forensic services rather than worrying about systems over which they have no control. It would be an insane optimist, though, to think that these problems will be resolved any time soon, even were MPs to bother about them.
All these contortions might be just about manageable were it not for the rape allegations made against Assange in 2010. The idea that the same man might be capable of doing both good and bad things, that a talented individual (let’s be generous) might also be a bit of a shit (or worse) in his behaviour to women was a bit too hard for some to accept. (‘Twas ever thus.
See Polanski, Koestler, Allen, though Weinstein’s film achievements cut him no slack. The rules on this can be so confusing.) It still is for the Shadow Home Secretary, rigidly insisting that no charges were brought while ignoring that this was because Assange had put himself beyond the reach of questioners thus making charges impossible. How very Nelsonian.
Other reactions were equally illustrative. Some noted that the Swedish allegations did not amount to rape in other countries, sexual assault short of rape presumably being unimportant unless the alleged assailant is already on the “disliked” list.
One MP even opined that “not every insertion” required specific consent, sounding like a badly translated instruction in a manual. The allegations were a convenient way of spiriting Assange off to Sweden thence to the US, this conspiracy theory ignoring the fact that there was no US extradition request at the time and extradition was far easier from the UK than Sweden.
Worst of all, it implied that the women making the allegations must have been pawns of others rather than genuine complainants. Not so much “cherchez la femme” as ignoring her, deeming her a liar or expecting her to be grateful for “insertions” by famous men. How easily reactionary views reassert themselves, even among the ostensibly liberal, when a man’s future is at stake.
Now 70 Parliamentarians are urging the government to prioritise Assange’s extradition to Sweden, ignoring the fact that these are matters for the courts precisely so that decisions can be made on the basis of facts and law, rather than on emotion or prejudged opinions. Even when politicians have the final say, they are obliged to act quasi-judicially, must not prejudge or have an actual, potential or even appearance of a conflict of interest.
Would it be too much to hope that those aiming for high office be aware of these pretty basic requirements? Remember the fate of Vince Cable, boasting about having declared “war” on Murdoch and losing his responsibilities for the BSkyB bid. Even a judge as experienced as Lord Hoffman caused his fellow Law Lords ruling on Pinochet’s extradition acute embarrassment when he failed to reveal his links to Amnesty International, a party to the case, while sitting in judgment.
Nemesis invariably follows hubris. People’s desire to believe in heroes and villains, their reluctance to accept that their heroes have flaws, complicated – and not necessarily entirely honourable – motives, to accept that the opposing side may have a point, a legitimate interest to protect is not going to disappear any time soon.
My side, right or wrong, is so much easier than applying principles to complicated facts. Meanwhile, Assange’s adventures have provided a diversion from Brexit. Both stories have a few more episodes to run. If we are lucky, their denouement will entertain us for some time to come.