Julian Assange came into the glass-walled side dock of Westminster Magistrates Court around 1pm yesterday, dressed in head-to-toe black, with a grey man bun, and a slightly unkempt beard, walking under his own steam, calm and, god help us, with a touch of insouciance.
Among the 20 or so journos in the court, and another 40 or so journos crowded into the public gallery, there was a touch of surprise. In the preceding two hours all of us had seen footage of his arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy that morning, a bearded wild man, carried out, kicking all the way.
Now here he was, in the dock, the magistrate at the bench, a silence hanging over the court.
“This hiatus is,” Judge Mark Snow said, “because we are waiting for your legal team.”
“I don’t think they know we’ve started,” Assange said, through the slats in the glass.
Snow looked wearied, as if this happened all the time.
“Would someone get them in…?”
In the interim, Assange read a book. Gore Vidal, one of his late self-contained essays, On the American National Security State. He held it up a little too visibly, and pointed it at the press corps, but ehhhhhh. Scribblers from the red-tops conferred in Essex accents.
“What’s the book?”
Scribblers from the broadsheets with languid Oxbridge accents helped them out. It’s not impossible there was a male-female dynamic in the air.
“Oh yah, it’s Vidal. V-I-D-A-L. He’s a novelist mostly…”
The lawyers and WikiLeaks folk arrived, Kristinn Hrafnsson and Jennifer Robinson in the back of the court. On the other end of the lawyers table, a man stood up, and in a British accent…
“Your honour … I represent the United States government …”
There it was. Nine years this had been coming, and here we were. That morning Julian Assange, founder and leader of WikiLeaks, had been arrested in the embassy, after the Ecuadorian government had withdrawn protection and invited the UK police in.
The proximate charge was jumping bail — in 2012, when Assange entered the embassy. But the real deal is a US extradition request, on a charge of conspiracy to steal classified information, the specific accusation that he had helped dissident soldier Chelsea Manning steal and crack hundreds of thousands of classified military files, relating to the criminal conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the cynical manipulation of global affairs as registered in the diplomatic cables of the US over 40 years.
Team Assange had a defence on the jumping bail thing:
“Your honour, my client had a reasonable fear that from remand he would be extradited to the US.”
That was received reasonably.
“Also that the previous presiding judge Lady Arbuthnot, did not recuse herself …”
That was not.
“You had ample time to raise this issue, and now you are traducing the reputation of a fine judge…” Snow went on. I thought of Peter Cook’s great monologue of the summing-up of the Jeremy Thorpe trial: “You have ruined the reputation of one of the most pretty defendants.”
Once Assange had been found guilty of skipping bail, it got even weirder.
“Your situation is a product of your narcissism,” said the magistrate clearly riled. He did not want the situation of Justice Lady Arbuthnot further explored.
I am happy to do so.
Lady Arbuthnot, who ruled on the lawfulness of Assange’s continued criminalisation in the UK in 2015, is the wife of Lord Arbuthnot, a Conservative who has held multiple defence industry posts over the last two decades.
This sally got short shrift, but it seemed to me intended to do so.
Although when I asked a member of the legal team how it had all gone, they said “well, you saw that shit show in there”.
So perhaps not.
Assange is now on remand awaiting sentencing for the fleeing bail charge — the Magistrates Court having transferred it to the Crown Court, so a larger maximum sentence of 12 months instead of six, can be awarded. Is that a plan too? That would forestall extradition for long enough for Jeremy Corbyn to become PM, at which point extradition would be refused. But it may be just all screaming chaos.
Over in the Commons, Brexit was being delayed to the end of October, the extension having been accepted apparently, and energy is now turning to the European elections and the self-dismemberment of the Conservative Party.
Outside the court, journos joked about the usual Assange scuttlebutt — his cat, his socks, etc — and essentially validated every critique of mainstream media that WikiLeaks has ever made: that the profession is full of natural sycophants, who spruik cynicism and call it even-handedness, who speak power to truth, who wilfully mistake the adrenaline rush of the micro-scoop and the petty scandal for genuine contestation.
It’s only with this most recent charge — abetting the “stealing of secrets” — that some have started to take notice. Because if you can be pinged for allegedly helping someone crack encrypted copied files, then what about if you coaxed them to blow the whistle with a few phone calls? What if you printed out their documents? Or had them translated, or legalled, or… etc? Does that make you a co-conspirator? The Assange case is the criminalisation of investigative journalism.
That won’t matter to most. The WikiLeaks project is inconvenient to anyone who would prefer to avoid the awful truth: that our lives are shaped by the exercise of power by great blocs, corporate and national. Politicians, academics, journalists — it shames all those who would prefer to live inside the whale, warm in the blubber of work and Netflix, and whatever.
The gleeful cynicism expressed by numerous media types whenever WikiLeaks has a setback is evidence of this. The project disturbs accommodation to power so exactly as to expose those who should be most ashamed of doing so, from commercial TV flotsam, to hip website stalwarts now rushing to News Corp to keep them in the game.
Of little consolation to Assange, now banged up, but still displaying a fighting spirit.
“Perhaps you could waive objection to extradition, and get on with your life,” the justice said, which received a sarcastic two-handed thumbs-up.
As they say, The Trial continues.