It is possible to protect the rights of the complainants in Sweden and Assange’s rights against political persecution, but a vindictive thirst for vengeance is preventing that.
Earlier this week, British lawyer and legal correspondent for the New Statesman David Allen Green generated a fair amount of attention by announcing that he would use his objective legal expertise to bust what he called “legal myths about the Assange extradition.” These myths, he said, are being irresponsibly spread by Assange defenders and “are like ‘zombie facts’ which stagger on even when shot down.”
In addition to his other credentials, Green — like virtually the entire British press — is a long-time and deeply devoted Assange-basher, and his purported myth-busting was predictably regurgitated by those who reflexively grasp onto anything that reflects poorly on western establishmentarians’ public enemy No1. It’s really worth examining what Green argued to understand the behavior in which Assange detractors engage to advance this collective vendetta, and also to see how frequently blatant ideological agendas masquerade as high-minded, objective legal expertise.
But before getting to that, let us pause to reflect on a truly amazing and revealing fact, one that calls for formal study in several academic fields of discipline. Is it not remarkable that one of the very few individuals over the past decade to risk his welfare, liberty and even life to meaningfully challenge the secrecy regime on which the American national security state (and those of its obedient allies) depends just so happens to have become — long before he sought asylum from Ecuador — the most intensely and personally despised figure among the American and British media class and the British “liberal” intelligentsia?
In 2008 — two years before the release of the “collateral murder” video, the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and the diplomatic cables — the Pentagon prepared a secret report which proclaimed WikiLeaks to be an enemy of the state and plotted ways to destroy its credibility and reputation. But in a stroke of amazing luck, Pentagon operatives never needed to do any of that, because the establishment media in the US and Britain harbor at least as much intense personal loathing for the group’s founder as the US government does, and eagerly took the lead in targeting him. Many people like to posit the US national security state and western media outlets as adversarial forces, but here — as is so often the case — they have so harmoniously joined in common cause.
Whatever else is true, establishment media outlets show unlimited personal animus toward the person who, as a panel of judges put it when they awarded him the the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, “has given the public more scoops than most journalists can imagine.” Similarly, when the Australian version of the Pulitzers — the Walkley Foundation — awarded its highest distinction (for “Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism”) to WikiLeaks in 2011, it cited the group’s “courageous and controversial commitment to the finest traditions of journalism: justice through transparency,” and observed: “So many eagerly took advantage of the secret cables to create more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime.”
When it comes to the American media, I’ve long noted this revealing paradox. The person who (along with whomever is the heroic leaker) enabled “more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime” — and who was quickly branded an enemy by the Pentagon and a terrorist by high U.S. officials — is the most hated figure among establishment journalists, even though they are ostensibly devoted to precisely these values of transparency and exposing serious government wrongdoing. (This transparency was imposed not only on the US and its allies, but also some of the most oppressive regimes in the Arab world).
But the contempt is far more intense, and bizarrely personal, from the British press, much of which behaves with staggering levels of mutually-reinforcing vindictiveness and groupthink when it’s time to scorn an outsider like Assange. On Tuesday, Guardian columnist Seumas Milne wrote a superb analysis of British media coverage of Assange, and observed that “the virulence of British media hostility towards the WikiLeaks founder is now unrelenting.” Milne noted that to the British press, Assange “is nothing but a ‘monstrous narcissist,’ a bail-jumping ‘sex pest’ and an exhibitionist maniac” — venom spewed at someone “who has yet to be charged, let alone convicted, of anything.”
Indeed, the personalized nature of this contempt from self-styled sober journalists often borders on the creepy (when it’s not wildly transgressing that border). Former New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller infamously quoted an email from a Times reporter claiming that Assange wore “filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles” and “smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.” On the very same day WikiLeaks released over 400,000 classified documents showing genuinely horrific facts about massive civilian deaths in the Iraq war and US complicity in torture by Iraqi forces, the New York Times front-paged an article purporting to diagnose Assange with a variety of psychological afflictions and concealed, malicious motives, based on its own pop-psychology observations and those of Assange’s enemies (“erratic and imperious behavior,” “a nearly delusional grandeur,” “he is not in his right mind,” “pursuing a vendetta against the United States”).
A columnist for the Independent, Joan Smith, recently watched Assange’s interview of Ecuadorean president Rafeal Correa and offered up this wisdom: “He’s put on weight, his face is puffy and he didn’t bother to shave before his interview with Correa.” And perhaps most psychologically twisted of all: a team of New York Times reporters and editors last week, in its lead article about Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum, decided it would be appropriate to include a quote from one of Assange’s most dedicated enemies claiming that when the WikiLeaks founder was a visitor in his apartment, he “refused to flush the toilet during his entire stay” (faced with a barrage of mockery and disgust over their reporting on Assange’s alleged toilet habits, the NYT sheepishly deleted that passage without comment).
It is difficult to think of anyone this side of Saddam Hussein who triggers this level of personalized, deeply ingrained hatred from establishment journalists. Few who spew this vitriol would dare speak with the type of personalized scorn toward, say, George Bush or Tony Blair — who actually launched an aggressive war that resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 innocent people and kidnapped people from around the globe with no due process and sent them to be tortured. The reaction Assange inspires among establishment media figures is really sui generis.
It is vital to note, as was just demonstrated, that this media contempt long pre-dates, and exists wholly independent of, the controversy surrounding the sex-assault allegations in Sweden, and certainly long pre-dates his seeking of asylum from Ecuador. Indeed, given that he has not been convicted of anything, to assume Assange’s guilt would be reprehensible — every bit as reprehensible as concluding that the allegations are a CIA ruse or that the complainants’ allegations should be dismissed as frivolous or inherently untrustworthy.
It would be genuinely nice to think that the same British government that refused to extradite the mass rapist Augusto Pinochet has suddenly developed a devoted passion for ensuring that alleged sex-assault offenders are brought to justice — just as it would be nice to believe that the sudden interest in denouncing Ecuador’s press freedom record was driven by some newly discovered and authentic concern in the west for civil liberties protections in South America. But as Milne put it last night with great understatement: “such posturing looks increasingly specious.” As he rhetorically asked:
“Can anyone seriously believe the dispute would have gone global, or that the British government would have made its asinine threat to suspend the Ecuadorean embassy’s diplomatic status and enter it by force, or that scores of police would have surrounded the building, swarming up and down the fire escape and guarding every window, if it was all about one man wanted for questioning over sex-crime allegations in Stockholm?”