Separating the man from the cause

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in today’s (London) Times.

The WikiLeaks ‘hero’ is actually morally bankrupt
The Times, 23 September 2011

One question I’m often asked about my long investigation into MPs’ expenses is whether I was ever threatened with retribution. The answer is no. The closest I came was John Prescott getting snarly on Newsnight and an angry letter from a former MP staffer.

Strangely enough, it was investigating Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks frontman, for a book about the digital revolution that put me in the crosshairs of an angry online mob. At first I was impressed by this seeming warrior for transparency, democracy and accountability. In his “unauthorised autobiography”, published this week, we hear the old war stories of his early hacking days when he used the handle Mendax, from Horace’s Splendide Mendax – nobly untruthful. Yet I came to discover there was little that was noble about Assange’s mendacity.

He may have started WikiLeaks with the best of intentions, but to lead a campaign for openness while acting like an authoritarian patriarch with little respect for the truth does not bode well.

He looked upon WikiLeaks donations in the same way some politicians look upon the taxpayer, as a funding source for personal needs. This first became apparent after he was accused of sexual assault by two women in Sweden and he tried to use donations to fund his personal legal defence. Other WikiLeaks volunteers opposed this, and for this they were deemed traitors. Assange’s method throughout has been to conflate the cause with the man and by so doing try to make himself above question.

In his world, those who challenge him for his dubious behaviour aren’t holding him to account but part of a dark conspiracy. I witnessed many Wikileaks volunteers who dared question Assange, denounced by him as either stooges of intelligence agencies or spurned lovers (men or women, it didn’t matter). Online whispering campaigns would start up seeding these ideas. People who gave Assange their time and money would find themselves suddenly sidelined and briefed against for daring to question an immoral action by the founder. Long before Daniel Domscheit-Berg wrote his book, Assange was telling people that his former partner was a paranoid schizophrenic and an intelligence agent. When Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir voiced her disapproval of Assange’s decision to publish informers’ names in the Afghan war logs, he told reporters it was because ‘she’s in love with me’. It was the same with all those who worked with Assange whether at the Guardian, New York Times, Norway’s Aftenposten or most recently Canongate. What could never be countenanced was that Assange was responsible by his own actions.

When I got hold of the full set of US diplomatic cables, I discovered first-hand Assange’s capacity for dissembling, spin, threats and blatant untruths*. While Assange showed bravery, the way the Afghan logs were published with informers’ names left in was ethically irresponsible. He claimed I’d obtained the leak of his leaks through “criminal deception”, which was an utter untruth*. He told another reporter that he “knew where I lived” and the insinuation was that I’d better watch out. He threatened to sue me for depriving him of his “financial assets” (no writ yet). I heard from hacker friends that he’d been smearing my reputation, and his tiny army of cultish Assangistas launched a hate campaign online.

These people wanted their hero and they could not countenance the truth: that the man they’d chosen as their saviour was morally bankrupt. His fight for freedom of information wasn’t based on any moral principle but rather from a barely understood psychological compulsion.

So I, for one, want to separate the man from the cause. If one is going to be a campaigner for truth then telling it occasionally wouldn’t go amiss.

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* Due to English libel law, newspapers in the UK are loathe to ever use the word ‘lie’ and so you will see that ‘lies’ and ‘utter lie’ are published as ‘untruths’ and ‘utterly untrue’. These two words may seem indistinguishable to the reader but in English libel law they matter. A lie is: to speak untruthfully with intent to mislead or deceive whereas an untruth is: the state or quality of being untrue; a statement or fact that is untrue. The key difference is that a lie is an untruth told with deliberate intent to mislead. In this article, ‘lie’ is actually more accurate. However, English libel law is one of the most restrictive of free speech in the world. It puts the burden of guilt on the defendant (the writer) who is presumed guilty and must prove innocence. It is for this reason that England is favoured by the rich and powerful as the place to bring libel actions as a means to stifle and suppress criticism. Assange was initially a great campaigner against England’s libel law, at least until he became powerful and then began threatening libel actions of his own against those who criticised him.

8 Responses to “Separating the man from the cause”

  1. Well... says:

    Interesting article, fascinating insights into Assange, and agree with it all except for this bit in the footnote:

    “However, English libel law is one of the most restrictive of free speech in the world.”

    With respect, your invocation of the reversal of the burden of proof isn’t in itself something that’s going to convince me that the English law of libel is unduly repressive of free speech. If one falsely accuses somebody of lying (quite a serious accusation) then I have no sympathy for this person being sued. Moaning about a minor linguistic contortion you have to go through in order to save your own skin in the absence of evidence is pretty childish.

    Courts go to great lengths to ensure that comment which doesn’t contain outright character assassination or blatant lies do not lead to damages. Your mention of libel tourism is also, as far as I can tell, devoid of any actual evidence to back it up, despite how often it’s brought up by people backing libel reform. Besides, would you rather people whose reputations are being trashed are not able to claim some form of redress?

    Be glad that, unlike in some parts of Europe (even France!), libel is not a crime. I would suggest that, in future, you stick to the topic you’ve started writing about, rather than dropping in some ill-thought out stuff about issues unrelated to your article.

  2. Garve Scott-Lodge says:

    I greatly admire you for the work you did on MPs expenses Heather, but this article along with others you’ve published on this subject leaves me puzzled and disappointed. You and certain Guardian journalists have spent the last two months or so almost obsessively taking every opportunity to twist and spin any Wikileaks related story into another anti-Assange tweet, post or article. By doing so you’re ignoring the continuing effects of Wikileaks in the world as a whole.

    Search the worldwide version of Google News for ‘Wikileaks’. You’ll find journalists in pretty much every country writing articles about the contents of leaked documents – only in the UK and to a lesser extent the US do writers for serious newspapers complain about JA having holes in his socks or being mean to cats.

    We get that you, David Leigh and James Ball don’t like the guy. You’ve all met him, so it’s a fair bet that he’s really not very likeable. We don’t need you all churning out article after article telling us so.

    Please get back to doing proper journalism – we know you’re good at that. Lay off JA – he’s good at his job too and many of us believe what he’s doing is very important and he should be allowed to concentrate on that instead of a spat with a couple of UK papers.

  3. Ordinary Joe says:

    You’re a good journo, but you need to let go of your obsession with Assange. Harping on about his real or imagined misdeeds makes you look as though you also have a “barely understood psychological compulsion” and does you no favours. I hear you’re a professor these days – time to grow up and move on?

  4. Nameyname says:

    The desperate drivel of the venegeful spurned. Get over him, Heather.

  5. heather says:

    In answer to allegations that I write about nothing other than Julian Assange may I point out that this is, in fact, the only article I’ve written on the subject. The piece in the Mail on Sunday was a serialisation from the book and it was entirely that newspaper’s decision what to extract as one would expect from a free press. Obviously even one article of criticism is too much for some of the believers to handle.

  6. Nameyname says:

    Heather, you wrote an entire book about him.

  7. Marcelo Soares says:

    Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber nailed it all on the first song of “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

  8. heather says:

    I’ve posted a few of the desperate rants from the desperate fans (such as Nameyname) above who comprise the ludicrous “Julian Assange Fanciers Club”. That these people post to such a site is humiliation enough so I see no need to add to their pathetic misery. They’ve clearly not read my book otherwise they’d know they were talking bollocks. A lack of facts presents no obstacle, however, for the paid-up Assangista.

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