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.
* 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.