Julian Assange and the big picture
John Kampfner: Julian Assange and the big picture
03 Mar 11

This article was originally published in the Guardian

I’ve always wanted a walk-on part in a Hollywood movie, but I don’t suppose Steven Spielberg will indulge me. The mogul has bought the film rights to two recent books critical of Julian Assange, both of which provide racy accounts of the difficult relationship between the WikiLeaks founder, his comrades and the newspapers he worked with. Now my role as an alleged “Jewish” conspirator against him may, if I’m lucky, go celluloid.

All this would be entertaining, but for anyone who cares about free expression and freedom of information, the catfight between WikiLeaks and the organisations that were longstanding supporters is a shame. At the risk of sounding pious, it’s time to refocus on the big issues.

When Index on Censorship began nearly 40 years ago, the issues were perhaps more black and white than those posed by instant information and the internet, and the competing needs of free expression, confidentiality, privacy and security Assange has raised. Index strongly supported the publication of the leaked US embassy cables. With the odd exception, we saw no evidence that they posed a clear and present danger to sources; we saw them as strongly in the public interest. The days when governments or corporations believed they had a right to secrecy, to protect their narrow interests or save them embarrassment, are gone.

Index’s association with Assange goes back some time. In 2008 WikiLeaks won the new media prize at our annual awards. We were pleased to host him in a debate in London last September, but his combative demeanour that evening was a surprise. Throughout the past few months we have been at the heart of the tussle. Two of Index’s trustees are Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens and his agent, Caroline Michel. Whenever asked, particularly in the US, about reconciling Stephens’s two roles, I have pointed out that Index is a broad church, and that Stephens has been a longstanding battler for free speech.

It has often felt like treading on egg shells. We were asked in December to channel Assange’s defence fund through our bank account. Our chairman, the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, and I thought it inappropriate for a charity to become involved in the personal allegations against Assange. So we declined.

When urged at the start of January by Assange’s publisher to help him write his memoirs I said I was ready to assist, but only if I had strong editorial input and that no subject was off-limits. This, I was told, was not acceptable. Roughly at the same time our organisation started asking questions about Israel Shamir, a man accused of Holocaust denial and of being a close associate of Belarus’s autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko. Index is one of the founders of the Belarus Committee. Despite repeated but polite requests to WikiLeaks, our team was stonewalled, so we went public with our concerns.

Assange’s reported conspiracy remarks to Private Eye magazine about me and senior figures in the Guardian do not help his cause. With so many genuine adversaries, why seek more? His approach has reinforced a view that whistleblowing is the preserve of irresponsible eccentrics — playing into the hands of malign forces in the US seeking to prosecute him for “terrorism” or under the espionage act.

Thanks in large part to WikiLeaks, no matter how hard the authorities try, it will be impossible in future to prevent conscientious whistleblowers from passing on material that seeks to cast a light on the actions of the powerful — information that might otherwise remain secret. Due to the published documents, people around the world — notably in the Middle East and north Africa — have a better sense of what others thought of their autocratic leaders. All this is the positive legacy. The rest is soap opera or, dare I say it, Tinseltown.