Julian Assange in 2010 and 2019
The revelation Julian Assange has a partner and they have two young children conceived during his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London raised the world’s eyebrows on Easter Sunday. The Assange saga was already akin to a spicy casserole, but this latest twist was like tossing in a handful of chopped chillie.
South African-born lawyer Stella Morris says she joined Assange’s legal team and met him in 2011, and they began a relationship four years later. She says she posted the online Easter video revealing the relationship because UK authorities were about to reveal it anyway. She describes Julian Assange as generous, tender and loving, nothing like the figure we've seen routinely demonised by politicians and elements of the media for years. The closeness of their bond is apparent in the video, and as their young sons play in the room she tearfully recounts how she feels he’s been subjected to ten years of measures to break him down and try to destroy his life. She says she also posted the video because she’s worried that in his poor state of health he could contract COVID-19 in Belmarsh Prison in London, where he’s being held during US extradition proceedings, and wants him temporarily released on humanitarian grounds.
The contentious cat, in the Embassy window
Before Belmarsh his address was the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He spent seven years in refuge there, but that ended a year ago with his protection being lifted and Assange being hauled out by British police. Not long before the embassy let the police in, an Ecuadorian minister claimed Assange was smearing human excrement on the walls. The media, well, lapped it up. London’s Daily Mail published pictures of a few dirty items in a kitchen sink and a tiny bathroom with, yes, the toilet seat up, in a story headed “Assange inside his fetid lair: Revealed, the full squalid horror that drove embassy staff to finally kick him out.” Presumably the Ecuadorian pronouncement was intended to justify the action to come, and the police arrived for him soon after.
Stella Morris says the world has failed Julian Assange. Over the years Australian politicians appear to have had little inclination to do much to help him, although the rather odd couple of Andrew Wilkie and George Christiansen did visit him in Belmarsh earlier this year, raised serious concerns about his health and urged the UK to block the US request to extradite him to face espionage charges in an American court. But other Australian politicians have seemingly done little. When she was prime minister, Julia Gillard called him a lawbreaker, but couldn’t say whose and which laws. He certainly hasn’t been charged with any breaches of Australian laws, which one would have thought the primary concern of our politicians. Some in the Australian media have branded him a braggart and a narcissist. Some have said he isn’t a “real journalist”. But his failure to serve a cadetship with the Woop-Woop Bugle does seem beside the point. Stella Morris called him a whistle-blower – and that he certainly is. He’s also certainly a citizen-journalist, an activist and a publisher.
Whatever you call him, he’s long blown the whistle on powerful forces in our world. That he sometimes published unredacted material that may have posed threats to vulnerable individuals is a criticism that can legitimately be levelled at him. But Assange and his team at Wikileaks, as well as the self-exiled Edward Snowden, can be seen in their own way as carrying on the work of the likes
of Daniel Ellsberg and Woodward & Bernstein into the 21st Century – holding authority to account by exposing dirty linen that otherwise would have remained stashed under “state secrets”. Yes, fine journalists from the world’s media did band together for the Panama Papers – but despite the scandalous nature of the commercial dealings they exposed, in the end that ebbed and subsided quickly. Releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents that show how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have really been conducted is another matter entirely.
We must remember the Vietnam of Michael Herr’s Dispatches was the last war in which the press had some freedom of movement to witness and report. Journalists could hop board military helicopters and report on what they saw in battle. Now coverage is tightly controlled, the reality of war hidden from public view, which made these troves all the more important. Perhaps the most famous item, a video titled “Collateral Murder”, showed at least 18 unarmed people including two journalists being gunned down by an Apache helicopter in Iraq in 2007. But by bringing material like this to light, Julian Assange was exposed to the full wrath of those he threatened.
He first ran afoul of the law over sexual misconduct allegations by two women in Sweden. This part of the story is now so muddied and complicated that possibly many people can’t remember much about it. The claims put forward by Swedish prosecutors a decade ago seem largely - but not exclusively - to pertain to his not using a condom during intercourse. What actually happened in those encounters we may never know. He’s never faced a court on the allegations and in all likelihood won’t. Assange has always denied any criminal wrongdoing. One of his lawyers later suggested the women were “honey pots”, for what we’re told is known in the spook trade as “honey traps”. But one thing is certain – those sexual encounters marked the beginning of the end of Julian Assange’s liberty, health, youth, and ability to continue doing the investigative work he had been.
After the complaints were lodged he was questioned by Swedish police, after which he returned to the UK, apparently unhindered. But then Sweden issued an international warrant, and he gave himself up to British police for questioning, and was granted bail. Sweden applied for and in May 2012 was granted his extradition. At that point Assange fled into refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, saying he feared the US would try to extradite him from Sweden to face espionage charges over the troves of leaked documents. This was lambasted as outlandishly conspiracist by much of the world’s media - but it later turned out they were all wrong, and he was right.
The media attacks continued nonetheless, seemingly intensifying as his years in the embassy wore on. When he was forcibly removed in April last year, the liberal US magazine The Atlantic published an excoriating piece by Michael Weiss headlined “Julian Assange Got What He Deserved”. The sub-heading accused him of being a “megalomaniac” and of “promiscuity with the facts” (whatever that means, but yes we do get the implication).
In it Weiss opened not with prim facts of his own regarding Assange’s work, but a slew of ad hominem slurs, even contriving an image link between the activist and a hanged dictator.
“In the end, the man who reportedly smeared feces on the walls of his lodgings, mistreated his kitten, and variously blamed the ills of the world on feminists and bespectacled Jewish writers was pulled from the Ecuadorian embassy looking every inch like a powdered-sugar Saddam Hussein plucked straight from his spider hole.”
I followed the links in Weiss's story and found the kitten reference amounted to little more than a claim he needed to take better care of his cat (although it does appear rather untormented in photographs from the embassy, and if it is indeed the same cat in the video with Stella Morris it looks anything but a mistreated animal); that an LA Times review of a film about Assange quotes him calling the Swedish allegations a “radical feminist conspiracy”, but no mention of blaming the ills of the world on feminists; and that the tweet regarding Jewish writers was a deleted one from a Wikileaks source and its author is not verified. Assange has emphatically denied any allegation of anti-semitism.
But if Weiss’s intention was to smear his subject with ordure, he couldn’t have got off to a more pungent start, even if in a later paragraph he does acknowledge a former Ecuadorian minister denied the excrement claim, and said it might just have been an eviction pretext. Weiss goes on to mention the tentacles of Russia and the 2016 Clinton email disclosure and whether Assange was a possibly unwitting pawn in a geopolitical play. That may or may not be the case. Some people might think those emails got Donald Trump over the line. Given what seems to have been in them – in the end not much – and that the sharpest point of attack was Hillary Clinton using a private server for official emails, it’s hard to gauge if voters in Ohio and Indiana or elsewhere voted for Trump because of them, or because of Cambridge Analytica’s laser-sights targeting of swayable voters, or that they wanted a “disruptor” billionaire TV star for a president, or some other reason such as their jobs disappearing.
Weiss goes on to label Assange “the Bakunin of bullshit”. The Russian anarchist may just have enjoyed that, but even if it were the case, is that enough to support Assange being shackled and dragged to the US to face those (once ridiculed) spying charges, and potentially spend the rest of his life in an American jail for being a whistle-blower and doing what journalists are meant to do - report the truth? Did members of the US liberal media say Daniel Ellsberg “got what he deserved” when he was charged with espionage and theft over the Pentagon Papers? Or did they think perhaps he was a nice person who bathed regularly and minded his pets, to be supported rather than verbally eviscerated? Ellsberg was not a career journalist either – he was a former Defense Department official and worked for the Rand Corporation. And like Assange he blew the whistle on secrets about how the US was conducting a war, in his case Vietnam.
Reading Weiss’s year-old article now is an unsettling reminder of how much vitriol Assange has faced, from all sides. He’s been called a narcissist by judges and journalists, and a “seedy ego-maniac” by the Telegraph in London.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly has consistently argued for his right to a fair trial, and to avoid extradition to the US as she fears he won’t get a fair trial there. But she’s also written that nearly everyone she knows – including people one might suppose would support him – is “bored” with him (she’s not among them). If that is how seeming progressives in Australia see him, it strikes me as exceptionally odd and callous. And is he somehow meant to be entertaining? A few weeks ago she wrote about the start of the extradition proceedings in the UK, and how much is already stacked against him. And as she noted: “Everyone has a view on Assange. But, frankly, our views should be irrelevant. We, the public, are not in the know. We’re easily manipulated. We can be wrong.”
For what it’s worth I’m going to have a crack at it anyway, even if unlike Elizabeth Farrelly I haven’t met him. My take is he’s a social justice activist who got in far, far over his depth, who learned the tools of the e-trade early on and saw their power and potential to crack vaults and divulge secrets he believed people have a right to know but their governments don’t want told. Has he always behaved perfectly? Well, have his critics? Has anyone? Are his personal habits scrupulously hygienic? Who can say? But one can only imagine what seven years hiding out in a cubby hole might do to your head and habits. But has he revealed important information that’s enhanced our understanding of power and realpolitik in the 21st century? Definitely. Has he pursued that goal, even if to his personal loss? He has. Has he become famous, notorious even, in the process? Definitely. Did he set out with the goal of gaining personal attention and fame, as one might expect from a “narcissist” and “megalomanic”? My own sense is no. He’s clearly highly intelligent and would have realised what and who he was taking on was a risk to all at Wikileaks, but as its chief to him in particular. But he went on with it. For personal fame? No - that would seem collateral damage.
A few more questions then.
Does Michael Weiss, or the Daily Mail, or anyone else now believe Julian Assange was smearing excrement around and not bathing while he was involved in an ongoing intimate relationship? Smearing shit round your pad for time with a lover? Really? OK, but did he neglect cleaning his bathroom? Well, possibly. Line up ye guilty millions.
Will the media say they were wrong to pour scorn on him when he said the US wanted to extradite him, all those years ago? Where are the retractions and apologies?
Why did the Ecuadorians really want to get rid of him? Stella Morris says he was being spied on, and this has been reported by others in his legal team. Does this mean officials, and possibly those of other governments, may have been able to monitor intimate acts? And might it have just been that Assange began coping better having love in his life, and that a decision was made somewhere to tighten the screws even harder? That’s not a conspiracy theory - just a question.
His fate now largely rests with the British judiciary. If it agrees to his extradition, it would seem his US trial (and his future and that of his new family) will turn on whether it can be proved he encouraged and/or aided Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to access the Iraqi trove. Daniel Ellsberg himself was charged with theft as well as espionage, but his case didn’t proceed because of “gross governmental misconduct” – viz, dirty tricks by Nixon’s men.
Ellsberg became a hero for liberals: Assange gets the opposite treatment, vilified for his alleged “character flaws”. But both essentially did the same thing, draw back the veil on how the US conducted itself in the world’s last three major conflicts - Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. That is the fact, and the work, of both men. For the record, Ellsberg has called the charges against Assange the most significant attack on press freedom since the Pentagon Papers and has hailed Manning as an “American hero”.
Last year the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said Julian Assange has been psychologically tortured. He said his mental and physical state have shown an alarming deterioration, and that Britain, Sweden and the United States were responsible. He also said he should not be extradited to the US.
Stella Morris says her partner is in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in Belmarsh Prison. She fears his life might be coming to an end. She says the world has failed him. She’s right. And as an Australian I feel we have failed him in particular, as one of us.
Larry Buttrose, 20 April 2020.
The views expressed here are my own only.