On the 19th of June, Julian Assange, briefly media’s golden boy, took refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, seeking asylum. He had just lost an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom over his extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault, and thought nothing of breaching his bail conditions to avoid being tried. His high-profile liberal supporters, who put up his surety, are suitably embarrassed, having backed him with their money and honour, only to find themselves cheated by a man whose word isn’t quite his bond.
Not so long ago, Assange was still being feted as the champion of free speech and good governance. Wikileaks, the website he founded, published documents stolen from various governments and corporations around the world. Most were fairly humdrum; many were in fact already publicly available. But a few were sensational in nature, and thus made good copies for journalists, who repaid him with good press, and propelling him to worldwide fame. Not in the least concerned with the doubtful way – namely theft – with which they were obtained, medias justified their support on grounds of freedom of press, as if it meant the right to be privy to any information whatsoever, notwithstanding the right to privacy and private property.
From the onset, Assange showed brazen indifference towards those whom his leaks affect. In 2008, he published the contents of Sarah Palin’s e-mail account, obtained quite illegally, as if she didn’t have the right to maintain a private life and correspondence (one wonders if mainstream media would have been so forgiving if he published Obama’s e-mails). Despite his self-portrayal as the Robin Hood of the digital age, stealing information from the powerful to benefit the masses, he had no scruples publishing half a million pager messages sent on September 11, 2001, many of which were personal communications between private citizens.
The straw that should have broken the camel’s back came in 2010, when he published the Afghan War Diary, which contained, amongst other things, names of hundreds of Afghan informants, whose lives were put in jeopardy in the name of openness. The number of Taliban killings of pro-government Afghans subsequently rose, and even Reporters Without Borders, no friend of censors, condemned the release. But once again, the noxious entente that existed between newspaper editors keen on scoops and Assange prevailed, and protected him from public condemnation.
His master stroke was to have been the release of half a million American diplomatic cables spanning four decades which, he felt certain, would expose once and for all the wickedness of American foreign policy, thus guaranteeing him a place in the journalistic Pantheon. Later, when his journalistic friends turned on him, just as he did with the hapless Army private who provided him with the cables, it was revealed that when questioned about informants’ safety, he said “so, if they get killed they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” A silence was said to have fallen around the conference table, through it did not prevent the temporarily-scrupulous journalists releasing the cables with only cursory redactions.
The cables were released to great fanfare, amid much excitement. The results, however, were thoroughly unspectacular. American diplomats were shown to be articulate and informed public servants, who did not hesitate to speak harsh words about foreign politicians, a frankness which led to a few of them being declared persona no grata, surely not a victory for openness, since it discourages diplomats from speaking the truth, for fear of offending their hosts. Many headlines were made – but most were concerned with unsavory practices of other countries that were revealed in the cables. On the whole, apart from a few red faces, and a few harmed careers in the Foreign Service, the release was a great non-event. Public interest faded rapidly, and not even the release of all the cables could help Wikileaks regain momentum.
Apart from the failure of his latest release, and predictable American reprisal attempts against him, Assange had problems of another kind. Two Swedish women had filed criminal complaints against him, alleging rape and sexual molestation. Now he was subject to an arrest warrant, and detained in London pending extradition. Then followed the unseemly spectacle of Assange trying to claim that it was all an attempt at getting him extradited to the United States, while the well-thinking Left pathetically defending him, even though his alleged conduct was of a kind that is normally considered to be beyond the pale.
He argued and appealed, to no avail. In the meantime he was bailed by prominent left-wing activists, who were united in their belief in his sainthood. Once they had paid his bail, he lived in some style in a country house, before moving to the estate of the Marquess of Abergavenny. To distract himself, he filmed a television series for Russia Today, the mouthpiece of a government which carries on its predecessor’s authoritarian legacy, and which makes a strange partner for someone who supposedly cares about free speech – there is preciously little of that in Russia. On the inaugural episode his guest was the General Secretary of Hezbollah, whose views and actions need not be recounted. Suffice to say free speech and human rights are not their watchwords.
When his last appeal failed, Assange told the rule of law to get lost, and walked into the Ecuadorian Embassy, demanding to be protected from evil and infamous Sweden. And where would the great defender of press freedom go seek refuge if not Ecuador, whose president used the army to take over independent televisions stations, among other misdeeds? Incidentally, the sordid details of President Correa’s vendetta against his opponents in the media, including preposterous fines arbitrarily levied, are documented in the State Department’s leaked cables, should he care to peruse them.
The sorry tale does credit to no one. Formerly reputable newspapers sold their integrity for a song and a headline, while Assange has been exposed as a hypocrite of the first order, striving for fame, whatever happened to the little people who got in his way. When things went bad, he did not hesitate to lie down with strange bedfellows, abandoning any pretension to the moral high ground. Beware of dashing knights bearing gifts.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
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