“[Julian] tended to eat pretty much with his hands. People in magazine articles say he doesn’t eat, but he had three helpings of lasagne that night and he ate both the baked potato and the jam pudding with his hands …”
Oh good god, here we go again. It’s another elephantine article/expose/hatchet job on Julian Assange, in which the grey blur’s habits, table talk and sock preferences are examined in minute detail for several thousand words, at the end of which he is accused of being self-obsessed. This time around, elephantine doesn’t really sum it up. It is a balene, blue whale-sized piece, 27,000 words from the London Review of Books, written by Andrew O’Hagan, the ghostwriter of Assange’s “unauthorised” autobiography, the half-completed memoir that Canongate put out in 2011, when it was clear that a full and finished manuscript would not be forthcoming.
The piece is a record of the months O’Hagan spent working with Assange at Ellingham Hall, the Norfolk pile where WikiLeaks was based after Assange was bailed during the extradition proceedings against him by Sweden in 2011. It’s also a playing-out by O’Hagan of his own contradictory feelings about Assange, who he seems to feel is something more than a Jack-the-lad — more a malign manipulator, too chaotic to be purposeful with it — but with whom he kept up a sort of friendship until very late in the day.
Needless to say, it’s being taken as another and decisive denunciation of Assange, exposure of hypocrisy, etc, and shooting around the world. What makes it of interest is from whence it comes, and at what moment — a bulletin from the British Left-liberal establishment, at a time when its project and identity is under more great pressure.
To do the book at high speed, O’Hagan moved up country and spent months hanging out with Assange and the floating WikiLeaks staff, amid what he portrays as a sprawling work, or non-work, process. Assange gave him the run of the organisation and opened up to him about WikiLeaks strategy and tactics, worldviews, etc. A risky thing to do with a novelist — although by now it is quite possible that he is using such notoriety to stoke a striking media presence. O’Hagan justifies it by the usual defence, that WikiLeaks believes in transparency, and sauce for the Norfolk-reared goose, etc. That’s a travesty of the WikiLeaks position, which argues that personal privacy should be respected while public institutions should be transparent, but that is by now par for the course with meeja encounters with WikiLeaks.
Thus we get thousands of words on how Assange eats lasagne, his relationship with Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks staffer with whom he had a personal relationship, his liking of the expensive suits donated by a well-wisher, and so on. More pertinently to a degree, O’Hagan alleges that Assange manipulates staff to some degree, has scratchy relations with some supporters, and a tendency to cynicism and backstabbing of some of those who’d supported him.
He portrays the WikiLeaks work process as chaotic and wasteful, but he also notes that they get things done, and stuff happens. He portrays a half-dozen of them, at the height of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, doing a hack to reopen the Egyptian telecoms connection to the world after the Mubarak regime had cut it off:
“At the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process. The revolution continued and Julian was satisfied, sitting back in our remote kitchen eating chocolates.”
That event, which — supposing it was not exaggerated to O’Hagan, who appears to be as technologically illiterate as every British Left-liberal — was of more import than anything else O’Hagan witnessed, gets five lines. Assange’s apparent obsession with landing in helicopters — at the Hay festival, having a helipad for his 40th birthday party at Ellingham, etc — gets paragraphs and paragraphs. To the casual reader, it’s merely a novelist’s expose, the material gathered under the moral rule of caveat interlocutor.
“The ‘redaction’ issue matters … because it has always been the way in which the UK Left-liberal media establishment distinguishes itself from Assange and WikiLeaks.”
Central to that impression is O’Hagan’s tone by turns amused, impressed, and ultimately dismayed and disturbed. In reality however, it’s a piece tilted against Assange and WikiLeaks, even as it appears to be more indulgent of him than most.
That is revealed in the most important claim in the article — that Assange and Co released the unredacted 250,000 diplomatic cables of the “cablegate” archive as part of their dispute with former WikiLeaks member Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Assange claimed that the fault lay with David Leigh, the Guardian journalist who co-wrote the quick-bucks book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, on which the movie The Fifth Estate was subsequently based. In writing the breathless scenes of accessing the files during the WikiLeaks-Guardian co-operation, Leigh revealed the exact password that had been assigned to the “cablegate” archive — including even the “salt”, the phrase left out of a written transfer of a password, and conveyed verbally, as a final security measure. When Domscheit-Berg revealed that copies of the cablegate archive were floating round the internet, both key and lock were now publicly available, and they made the full archive available, to restore transparency.
Leigh initially denied that the fault was his, and the British press largely supported him. But when The Economist published an article pointing out that the revelation of a password is the key security breach with encrypted files — which are merely 1s and 0s without it — Leigh engaged in a furious battle with critics in the comments string of the article (as I reported at the time). After two days, he gave up, saying:
Sep 10th 2011 8:13 GMT
Just to clear up a couple of factual points.
Yes, I understand the archive with z.gpg somewhere in it was posted by Assange or his friends in an obscure location around 7 December 2010…
… Obviously, I wish now I hadn’t published the full password in the book. It would have been easy to alter, and that would have avoided all these false allegations. But I was too trusting of what Assange told me.
But in O’Hagan’s article, this is not recorded. Instead, O’Hagan claims:
“He insisted Leigh had included a password in his book that could decrypt the files WikiLeaks had left online. Leigh has always said this is nonsense.”
This is either sloppy reporting on O’Hagan’s part — and sloppy in a way aimed against Assange — or he has spoken to Leigh, and got a further revised version of the story.
The “redaction” issue matters, beyond all the lasagne nonsense, because it has always been the way in which the UK Left-liberal media establishment distinguishes itself from Assange and WikiLeaks. They are demented cowboys, sources and not real journalists. We are professionals who protect sources, such as informers and spies named in a quarter-million cables.
Instead, the reverse was the case. The Guardian and its journalists, Leigh and Luke Harding, were so desperate to get a quick score on cablegate that the book was rushed to press without due diligence as regards security of the files. The omission was almost demonstrably contemptuous of the hacker world that had dropped the cablegate scoop in their laps. Everyone, even this luddite, knows that you don’t reveal a full password. But the Guardian reporters had cultivated the cult of the amateur as regards the technical matters of hackerdom to such a degree that they were simply blase about matters they had no knowledge of. Their book, together with Domscheit-Berg’s, was bought by Dreamworks to serve as the basis for the $60 million film The Fifth Estate. Neither Leigh and Harding, nor the Guardian itself, have disclosed how much they were paid for a volume that allowed the security services of the world to access any cache of the cables they happened to get hold of.
There’s a lot more in the article, and O’Hagan would be within rights to claim that some of it is pertinent to moral decisions people might make. O’Hagan portrays Assange as willing to engage in deceitful too-clever-by-half double-play to achieve results. He suggests, for example, that Assange arranged to denounce the book eventually produced, in order to increase sales, and while Assange may have his own account of that, it will seem plausible to many people dismayed by the debacle of the WikiLeaks Party, and attempts by an inner core to control a party they had set up as internally democratic. But, as with The Fifth Estate — the final frames of which implied that WikiLeaks had released the unredacted cablegate files out of sheer pique — the crucial charge is a falsehood, designed to paint Assange as as conscienceless as the organisations WikiLeaks goes up against. It’s crucial to the Left-liberal pose that enthrones them as the ultimate arbiter of moral action.
As I noted at the time of the Leigh admission, there is something about Assange that drives the Left-lib establishment a bit crazy, which is why they get into the contradictory position of decrying the cult of personality at the same time as they spend pages on how he eats pasta. Novelists novelise, but what is the argument of the LRB — a serious and unquestionably leftist publication — for running what is mostly trivia at such length? Could some of the space not have been used for, say, stories arising from the gradual release of the Edward Snowden cache of papers and its revelations about the all-encompassing surveillance of British as well as American public and private life?
The answer is, of course, that such stories are difficult and sometimes depressing, while an Assange story is catnip. With a circulation of 50,000, and currently carrying a debt of 27 million pounds (owed to its editor, a Russian-British heiress), it needs the zing of cheap scandal and voyeurism as much as anyone. It may also be that even this leftish part of the British Left-liberal establishment is also washing its hands of Assange.
“The Unilever deal suggests that it sees no alternative but to be a combined news/content-production media group …”
The Guardian’s wars against him — which included allowing a journalist who had denounced him to write up the report of the rape accusations against him (readers who want an account of its construction of the case can see it here) — are noted, as its extension into Private Eye, which is itself an extension of one faction within The Guardian these days. More recently, the New Statesman gave Jemima Khan the run of the magazine as guest editor, to run her own campaign against Assange after he ducked bail (some of which Khan had guaranteed) to enter the Ecuadorian embassy — Khan giving a confused account as to why she had fervently supported his attempts to avoid extradition to Sweden in the first place.
Overall, one can’t help but feel that the fascination and ambivalence the Left-lib establishment displays towards Assange has something to do with the crisis in its own project — that of the individual conscience, with no real theory of power, exposing falsehood. WikiLeaks, as a campaigning site, was precisely opposed to that conception, seeing mass leaks against conspiratorial power elites as a way out of the impasse that investigative journalism/whistleblowing had fallen into. Assange’s firm understanding of a way in which the world worked, and his application of that to a strategy, is what energised so many of them. That the regard was not returned in kind appears to have been part of the reason — beyond Assange’s unquestionable errors, gaucheries and self-sabotage — why the turn against him is so fierce.
That is especially pertinent now, because of an announcement by the Guardian, the centrepiece of the left-liberal establishment, that it is entering a partnership — Guardian Labs — with, of all groups, Unilever, the world’s third largest processed food producer. As the press release noted:
“The new Unilever partnership will create a bespoke engagement platform to increase awareness of, and foster debate about, sustainability issues, and ultimately encourage people to live more sustainable lives. The platform, which will initially focus on engaging with a UK-based audience, will provide interactive and cross-media content, as well as live events, from the beginning of March 2014.”
This is a company accused of deforestation for palm oil production, toxic dumping in India, bullying of governments to support genetically modified organisms, monopoly domination of local markets, and the promotion of overly intensive agriculture as “sustainable”. How can The Guardian claim independence on a vast range of issues if it has contracted a partnership funding 133 staff positions with such a group?
It can’t, of course. The Guardian, quietly, has given up. It recently sold its last cash cow, a 50% stake in Auto-Trader, for 600 million to 700 million pounds. That fund will have to cover 30 million pound-plus losses annually, as the global Guardian model appears to be failing to take off. The Unilever deal suggests that it sees no alternative but to be a combined news/content-production media group, which is, of course, the endgame. One suspects that that is a symptom of a wider malaise, and a crisis of identity for British Left-liberals, in an era when the sovereign liberal conscience doesn’t matter bupkiss. Which is why it remains crucial for all such groups to portray themselves as the repositories of conscience, and the source and conduit of a significant number of their scoops over the past eight years as a man outside of conscience.
For “conscience”, it appears, is becoming a valuable brand.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.