Last night (2 July) I attended the “debate” — actually, a questioning of five individual speakers by the chair and audience — on Julian Assange at the Frontline Club, featuring former editor-in-chief of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger; chief executive of the Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg; barrister Jen Robinson (part of the Doughty Street legal team advising Assange); columnist for The Times David Aaronovitch; and freelance journalist Vaughan Smith (the founder of the Frontline Club who offered refuge and sureties to Assange in 2010-2011) who is also a personal friend of the WikiLeaks publisher. Former BBC and Reuters journalist Robin Lusting served as Chair. Columnist for The Guardian and failed Parliamentary candidate Suzanne Moore, who previously referred to Assange as a “massive turd” allegedly “stuffing himself full of flattened guinea pigs,” was supposed to attend but apparently had a scheduling conflict.
Rather interestingly, the event was advertised thus:
|| “Does Julian Assange merit our support and solidarity – as a journalist and a defender of the freedom to inform? Or does his personal conduct – in light of allegations of rape and sexual assault, and his documented collaboration with Russian intelligence to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s election campaign – cancel out the debt owed to him by the editors and journalists who used the Wikileaks documents to publish, broadcast and post their many ground-breaking stories and reports?”
This must surely be one of the first times such a debt has even been acknowledged within the mainstream media, let alone any attempt made to cancel it. Notice also the unevidenced assumption that Assange is indeed a “collaborator” with Russian intelligence (quite clearly a premise to, as opposed to a conclusion of, a meaningful debate such as the one I attended last night).
The first speaker was Alan Rusbridger, who argued against extraditing Assange to the US but stressed his own disagreements with the WikiLeaks founder, who he portrayed as a freedom of speech absolutist and advocate for “radical transparency.” Remarkably, he didn’t explain therefore why David Leigh (investigations editor at The Guardian) and Luke Harding (one of their foreign correspondents) recklessly exposed a WikiLeaks decryption password in their book ‘WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy,’ thus disclosing access to 251,000 uncensored diplomatic cables. Asked if he supported the WikiLeaks revelations (many of which were published in collaboration with his own newspaper), he declared that he stood only by those documents released in conjunction with The Guardian. Emphasising how difficult Julian Assange was to work with, and how he has allegedly fallen out with a large number of former friends and allies, Rusbridger was asked by an audience member why The Guardian has still not retracted a provably false story by Harding that Paul Manafort visited Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He responded that he had “nothing to do with” The Guardian any longer. An audience member very eloquently posed the moral question whether Mr Rusbridger agreed that it is the ethical obligation of anyone who becomes aware of a crime, and in this occasion a war crime, as WikiLeaks has done, and that society should make provisions for this person to be immune from persecution.
Next up was David Aaronovitch, who famously declared in 2003 that if weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, “I – as a supporter of the [Iraq] war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again.” But never mind that. At least twice he spoke of Swedish “charges” against Assange, leading to groans and heckling from the audience, who corrected him that there are no charges. Called out on the falsehood, Aaronovitch remarkably opined that the distinction between allegations and formal charges (which would of course make Assange a fugitive from justice) were “pretty small.” Possibly (or possibly not) owing to the largely pro-Assange make-up of the audience, Aaronovitch insisted that he totally opposes Assange’s extradition to the US, and also any charges were he to be extradited. Though he acknowledged the lack of any evidence proving Assange to be a Russian agent, he commented that Assange “might as well have been,” and charged WikiLeaks with publishing information from Russian sources, though he did allow that Assange may have been unwittingly “manipulated” by said sources.
The third speaker was Jodie Ginsberg, who gave a spirited defence of free speech and the need to protect publishers and whistleblowers worldwide from the power of hostile states. On the question of unfair media coverage of Assange, she said she wished many of her clients could benefit from a fraction of the media attention Assange has received. A fraction of the negative media attention, perhaps? She wholeheartedly spoke against his extradition to the US.
The fourth speaker was Vaughan Smith, who, although a right-wing libertarian, has admirably championed Julian Assange’s cause through his many years of persecution. Smith talked at length about the dehumanisation of Assange, calling it “beneath us” as journalists, and quoted Nils Melzer, the Swiss academic and current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:
|| “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”
Asked by the chair if, as a former army man, he recognised the need for state secrets in some areas of life, he responded affirmatively and suggested that Assange also shared this view. As to the allegation that Assange had fallen out with many old friends and comrades, Smith declared that he had never fallen out with Assange, many other people had not fallen out with Julian and indeed that the latter was “very good company.” He question his faith in the legal system of this country in as far as Julian’s case was concerned using the term “lawfare” (the corruption of legal processes to persecute politically) to describe it.
The last speaker was Assange’s fellow Australian Jen Robinson, a protégé of the brilliant British-Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC. She called out David Aaronovitch for falsely accusing WikiLeaks supporters of revealing the names of Assange’s Swedish accusers to the press, explaining that it was the Swedish police that did so and defended her client Assange with her usual due diligence and legalistic rigour, even at one point pausing to note that the audience was appreciably less hostile than most she has recently spoken before. She spoke at length about the draconian charges Assange would face under the Espionage Act if rendered to America, but reassured the audience that his legal team is confident of every success in blocking such an extradition.
In the audience was noted Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi of La Repubblica, who asked why Assange (a mere bail violator) is jailed in a maximum-security prison and confined to a cell for 23 hours a day, when even Mafia suspects in Italy are not treated in such a manner. She had travelled to London attending her legal challenge the day before against the UK government at Upper Tier Tribunal to allow her access to the Julian Assange case files using Freedom of Information Access legislation.
All in all it was a very satisfying night. Audience members got the chance to make their voices heard, Rusbridger and (particularly) Aaronovitch appeared compelled to dial down their anti-Assange rhetoric (Aaronovitch had previously suggested Assange claim sanctuary in St. Paul’s Cathedral if his asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy didn’t work out…), and both Vaughan Smith and Jen Robinson put in commendable defences of Assange, WikiLeaks, and the mission to shine a light on what powerful state actors do behind closed doors, in our name.
Also read coverage from the event at wsws by Jean Shaul: Debate on Julian Assange at London’s Frontline Club for journalists
Here is the video: