News & Commentary

Julian Assange the literary festival guest, and the casual cruelty of the media

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Back in 2016, Bendigo Writers Festival hosted an event with Julian Assange. Robert Manne had written a small book about the “Cypherpunk Revolutionary”, a typically well-researched and carefully argued description of how Assange came to create Wikileaks, so we set up an interview from the Ecuadorian Embassy.

One of the positives about the internet (which Assange predicted would enrage governments determined to control power) is that we can get instant access to stuff we need to know: here’s a link to Manne’s essay, published in The Monthly in 2011, which shows why we thought the discussion was worth setting up:

Assange spoke to an audience in Bendigo’s Uumbarra Theatre, via a phonelink on computer. It was ridiculously simple to set up, even though we were told there was a good chance the connection would be interrupted unless we paid to have an expensive satellite link established. Assange and Manne spoke computer-to-computer, with an image of Assange projected on to a big screen on the stage.

Assange rattled on somewhat: he was obviously very stressed, wanting to make it clear that the trumped-up rape charges were a way to make it possible for the United States to extradite him from the UK. When you read Manne about cypher-revolution, you see what’s at stake, and why Assange is doomed. Why someone like Theresa May can calmly claim he’s not “above the law”, as though he’s jay-walked. Why no politician in Australia has broken ranks and had the courage to identify the powerful conspiracy that is, Javert-like, pursuing Assange to his end.

Assange’s place in the history of international cyber-power is big, and his personality both heightens and obscures that.

Back in 2016, there was some backlash to our having the event on the program. Assange was accused of rape, the critics said, so it was offensive to the women who accused him to give him a platform. At that time, the collusion between the Swedish and Americans was not “proven”, so the  finger-wagging was righteously vigorous.

It was a good event, mostly because Assange is unique. His place in the history of international cyber-power is big, and his personality both heightens and obscures that. Robert Manne is so well-respected and so diligent, it was clear we were hearing first-hand a conversation that mattered.

Even back then, however, I was struck by how blasé people can be, how sort of casually cruel. We had a well-known TV journalist on the program, and just as a passing chat really, I asked him if he was coming to hear Assange that evening. With a dismissive flick, he suggested Assange was old-hat, not news, not worth listening to. Possibly so, but here we now are, with this enormity before us, all the might and wrath of power rising like a Titan to crush, finally, the hubristic gnat of an enemy.

The morning of the news breaking (and how excited were the so-called journalists, oh, look, Assange, Folau, an election, what else, what else, oh we’re pumped all right), a radio station contacted me to ask if, as Assange’s mate, I’d care to talk about his arrest.

Seriously. That happened.

So I return for a moment to that journalist, and the casual, blasé way he referred to someone who is fighting for his life. If you believe that breaking into government sources and revealing what is done in the name of power is wrong, then you may say he deserves this fearsome show of strength against him and that he asked for his own suffering – “sought the limelight” as one commentator put it. The image of a man being carried away, of a policeman smiling at his moment close to the drama, at cameramen scurrying for a closeup – it’s gold, eh! What a news day!

It’s our pageant, the 21stcentury’s witch-burning, the French revolution’s guillotine. I’m loathe to quote WH Auden (because I’ve learnt – dutiful morality-leit citizen that I am – to think someone has to be all-correct, not just correct now and then, if we are to laud them), but this… well, there does seem to be a fair bit of bum-scratching going on these days:

…even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

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