They were putting copies of Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography in the window of Waterstone’s this morning when I arrived to buy a copy, which was cool — I really thought that was no more than a movie cliché. Inside, half a dozen copies sold in 10 minutes — most of the purchasers looked like newsroom interns — and a film crew from German state television was sharking around interviewing people.
Since no-one buying the book was willing to participate, they were finding casual browsers and offering to buy them a copy. When I arrived, they had cornered some gormless young man who had been, as is the case for most bookshop habitues, simply hiding from the day.
“Do you think it’s ironic that the WikiLeaks founder has tried to suppress this volume?” the British presenter asked. “Well, uh, gosh, hmmm, ‘spose.”
Pause. “Could you talk a bit more about how ironic it is?”
A woman was grabbed next. “Well I think WikiLeaks has done some ground-breaking things, some great things, but I’ve seen interviews with Mr Assange and I don’t like him, so I won’t be reading the book.”
Pause. “Do you think it’s ironic … could you say how ironic?” the presenter asked. When I left they were doing a static shot of her holding the book and looking at the cover. “Could you, um, glare at it a little?”
How the news is made.
A few hours later, after a rapid read of the tome, one can see why Julian Assange wanted to stop it being published, and ghoster Andrew O’Hagan took his name off it. Though the first half or so is reasonably strong, covering Assange’s childhood, entree into the world of hacking and progression to WikiLeaks, the whole thing starts to fall apart.
As it moves onto recent events — early triumphs of the group, the Iceland venture, the two warlogs and Cablegate — the text becomes something of a ramble and a rant, delivering little precise information. Drawn from 50 hours of taped interview/monologue by Assange, perhaps the early sections were always clearer in the raw, and Assange subsequently became tired and caught up with legal problems. Or perhaps they got some cleaning up from O’Hagan, who hadn’t reached the final sections yet.
Yet in neither case could one consider it a manuscript that anyone would intend to publish. The later sections have extended denunications of The Guardian, The New York Times and other “media partners”, and give an alternative account to their falling out, but they lack sufficient detail to make an effective alternative case.
For a hundred and something pages though, it’s a reasonably good read, especially if you read it as a picaresque romp, in the manner of Mark Twain, whom Assange cites several times. We follow the young Julian, born in Townsville to a free-spirited mother, as she, her son and stepfather Brett Assange travel northern NSW and Queensland, the parents presenting childrens theatre and political agitprop, dragging a menagerie of animals behind.
It’s good on sights, sounds, textures — the feel of ’70s northern Australia, and recalling early years in Lismore and surrounding counter-cultural haunts, as the “Big Scrub” rainforest was slowly cleared for agribusiness. There is much that becomes portentous in retrospect — Assange’s tendency to create “little gangs” of kids to explore forest, etc, and an early pre-computer hobby of beekeeping — with a hive that could only be transported by placing a wad of paper over its entrance, and hoping the bees didn’t eat through it until the end of the journey.
Then darkness strikes at age nine, as Assange’s mother and stepfather split up, and she takes up instead with a man Assange names as Leif Meynall — or Leif Hamilton, a musician, apparent deadbeat, and member of the notorious “Family” cult run by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Violent, but principally a mindf-cker in that quintessential ’70s way, Meynall stalked Assange, his mother, and the son she’d had by Meynall for six years. As Assange notes, that changed the nature of the nomadic lifestyle they’d enjoyed, from one of wandering to pursuit, from freedom to fear.
That leads of course to years on the lam, but also to the famous quasi-mythical moment when Assange discovers a Commodore 64 early personal computer, and launches into another world entirely: the computer, he said, had become his consciousness — it offered the capacity for the individual to reach to infinity close to hand, and for the networks of proto-hackers to create another realm of communication and interchange, and imagine that it might supplant the existing one, and impose its virtues.
That obsession takes him to Melbourne, and the book is good there too; on the hacking world amid an inner-city subculture in a greyish city, and the truly revolutionary moment of modernity — not the web, or the internet, but the simple personal modem, which allowed global hook-ups via bulletin boards, the formation of a global hacker subculture, and the venturing into the minimally protected systems of everything from corporations to the Pentagon.
The small gang Assange creates in Melbourne will eventually fall apart, after being rumbled by one assiduous cop, and one member turns state’s evidence against Assange, allowing for one his beat apercus: “It was a look that I had come to know, the look of betrayal organised on the face to look like a high minded interest in the truth.”
Pre-web hacking — Assange argues that the web killed it, turning it into a mass activity of pointless scams — is credited with decisively shaping the modern world, for it was these hacker networks, evolving into the cypherpunks website, and the development of public encryption among other things — a strain of the more theoretical aspect of the book Assange claims (rightly to judge from the manuscript) didn’t much get included.
It takes us through Assange’s years post-conviction in 1996, to his three years at Melbourne University in 2003-2006, and the crystalisation there of the idea for an organisation that would fuse safe encryption with mass leaking, publishing and interpretation, as a way of categorically challenging conspiratorial forms of power, such as states and corporations.
Here, and as the trail takes us to Africa, Iceland and elsewhere, it starts to get a bit more general, though there is a good passage on the editing and presenting of the “collateral murder” video. Yet much of what many people want to know — such as Assange’s version of the split whereby Daniel Domscheit-Berg and others departed accusing Assange of being a dictator — get only the most passing attention. The publication of the war logs and the deteroriating situation with The Guardian is where the book falls apart, with only the most basic guide to what was going on, and a lot of ruminations about the nature of mainstream journalists, with a phrase that may not win him more fans: “Vanity in a newspaperman is like perfume on a whore; they wear it to conceal a dark whiff of themselves.”
The section on Sweden, and the events that led to s-x crime accusations, give a somewhat jumbled narrative, but choose not to go into detail about the accusations of failure to use a condom after the explicit request, the only allegation against Assange.
Missing also is a more detailed account of WikiLeaks’s early encounter with the Julius Baer bank, which sued WikiLeaks associate Dan Matthews, whom some say Assange left hung out to dry (though Matthews told me by email that he still considers Assange a friend); a full account of whether he gazumped a deal with The Guardian by allowing Channel Four to run stories on the war logs; the accusation that he claimed indifference to the fate of those named in released, unredacted war logs and, crucially, the nature of the split from the German and Icelandic “wings” of WikiLeaks.
Maybe Assange would have dealt with those in a full manuscript, maybe not. He claims that Canongate essentially stole this text when shown it by the ghost-writer’s researcher. Whether the case or not, it would be manifestly unfair to judge Assange on what is, for its second part, little more than a sketch out of a fuller account.
Yet perhaps what is most telling is this: that of all the WikiLeaks memoirs and writings, the first half of this book has more life, passion, engagement, ideas and sheer presence of the human than all of the rest put together — a suggestion perhaps of where the animating spirit in the enterprise lies. Whatever the case it will certainly be the subject of energetic misconstruction across all media, for some time to come.