Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Why I'm Not Screaming For Julian Assange's Release

As a self-proclaimed Alternative Voice, I seem to be upsetting a few people by decrying the clamour for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's immediate release. Perhaps I ought to take a little time out to explain why.

To begin with, let me say that I agree that the timing of Mr Assange's arrest on an extradition warrant, so soon after Wikileaks' massive release of US diplomatic documents, looks like a clumsy attempt by The Powers That Be to smear and silence him. I'd be blind not to recognise this. And, of course, as soon as he was under arrest, the US government was not slow in issuing its own request for extradition; they could hardly be expected to ignore such a golden opportunity.

But let's be clear on this - this correlation is insinuation, not proof.

First of all, how much harm has actually been done to the 'embarrassed' parties concerned? We now have documents which reveal, to the shocked amazement of a touchingly naïve public, that diplomats often send frank and often less than complimentary assessments of their host countries and their leading figures back to their superiors. Well, strange as it clearly seems to many, that is the purpose of diplomats. Did people think they simply passed their time the Ferrero Rocher around? We have also learned that a member of the Royal Family is a bit of a twit, several Arab monarchies are less than favourably disposed to the Iranian ayatollah state which gave its monarchy the boot, and allied nations find fault with each other. Strangely, however, none of this will exactly come as a surprise to anybody with an ounce of political awareness.

Secondly, there is more to the question of timing than meets the eye. The allegations are not new; indeed, Julian Assange has given his side of the story on numerous occasions previously. It was only a matter of time, once his whereabouts were ascertained, before an extradition request was sent to that country's authorities by Sweden. But there is another party involved in this sequence of events - namely, Wikileaks itself. With the Swedish net inexorably closing on Assange, it could be argued that the timing of their publication was calculated to cast him in the role of folk hero - and martyr - just when he most needed a huge injection of popular support. That, after all, has certainly been its effect.

This also begs the question: why does Wikileaks need a public face in the first place? Mr Assange has made his name synonymous with Wikileaks, but what for? Surely the greatest protection of such an organisation is its very anonymity?

Perhaps it's time to make a sober assessment of what Wikileaks actually does. It receives secret documents, then disseminates them on the internet. By their very nature, these documents are unverifiable; a fact which is generally overlooked in the ensuing media feeding frenzy as one of the basic tenets of responsible journalism - namely, obtaining independent corroboration - is cheerfully thrown to the four winds. Whatever denials or qualifications are issued by the authorities concerned, the natural reaction to their protestations is to say (to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies' comment during the Profumo scandal many years ago), "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?" However, the fact remains - and this is the crux of my argument about Assange - that the leaked documents do not carry the authority of absolute, incontrovertible proof.

To get back to Mr Assange's current predicament, his supporters are vehement in claiming that he is now a political prisoner, being led to his doom over vaguely-defined claims of sexual misdemeanour. These claims are nothing but fabrications, they assert, designed both to discredit him in the eyes of the world and deliver him into the grateful hands of the US government. (Or, depending on who you listen to, a suspiciously convenient Dr Kelly-style death.)

In other words, the man who publicly represents an organisation which exists to disseminate unverifiable assertions which his supporters claim as incontrovertible fact is now being defended with unverifiable assertions which his supporters claim as incontrovertible fact. What has been lost from sight amidst all the shouting, it seems to me, is that the truth is known to only three people: Mr Assange himself, and the two women claiming he assaulted them.

Throughout the world, the establishment of guilt or innocence on the basis of evidence and probability is the preserve of the courtroom. If we fail to suspend our own judgement until the due process has been observed then we are displaying a lamentable disrespect for the very truth we claim to hold so dear.

So pardon me if I hesitate before proclaiming Mr Assange's saintly innocence across the internet. I'd rather wait and see how this plays out.

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