Carlyon: Assange – Sinner or saint?

by: Patrick Carlyon,  From: The Advertiser, January 07, 2012 12:00AM

JULIAN Assange, perhaps the world’s most famous Australian, has been under house arrest for 12 months.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Pictue: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Melbourne broadcaster Derryn Hinch, who should know, has said such sentences are far more demoralising than expected, and Assange has said he never could live in one place. This may explain the growing perception Assange looks and sounds more spooked than ever.

His case is even more confusing than that of the other Human Headline. Assange has spent years sneaking about the world, brandishing a laptop and preaching truth as the new gospel. He has sprung more leaks than the Titanic. Now he is cooped up without charge. That his prison happens to be an English mansion is one of the simpler paradoxes of his tale.

Swedish allegations of rape against Assange sound unlikely to have placed Assange in a courtroom under Australian laws. The sideshow may say more about Swedish law than Assange’s habits.

US authorities seek to match him to crimes for his wholesale releases of secret documents – their frenzy a tribute to that old line about trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Yet those who seek to anoint Assange as a hero may struggle with a task just as messy. Deeds may be the highest measure, but motives matter, too. Assange, a former computer hacker, is a puzzle. Transparency is his stated goal, yet troublemaking is his nature.

Does Assange’s detention make him a martyr? A high-profile list of Australian signatories seem to think so. They have petitioned Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd to tell the US we will not tolerate manufactured charges against an Aussie. We should condemn Assange’s extradition should the US invoke “temporary surrender” provisions.

These are fair points. Assange, as with any other Australian, shouldn’t be detained at length without charge – although, then again, nor should have the Bali boy busted with a little bag of marijuana.

American politicians have called Assange a terrorist. There have been calls for his murder. Such suggestions are plainly outrageous, as was a clumsy “illegal” label applied by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The petition is premised on Assange being treated as a journalist. His Wikileaks revelations are unmatched for breadth, insight and embarrassment factor in international affairs.

He has attained whole truths that the rest of us, as journalists, rarely do, through a rather brilliant pinch-and-publish philosophy. He has shifted battlelines. For the first time, perhaps, the nexus between the truth and the public interest has become smudged. Some Wikileaks releases are a reminder certain secrets are better unpublished, a counterintuitive notion that journalists don’t often confront.

What Assange is or is not will be debated for years. Even his confidants don’t have a fix on him. If he is a journalist, he is the first to have someone else write his autobiography. The book itself points to his oddness -who has an “unauthorised” autobiography?

His fallout with his publisher points to another constant: Assange always falls out with people.

Maybe that’s the price of truth, as he constantly says. Or maybe it’s a clue to a less satisfying truth: if Assange is a hero, he may be as muddled as Graham Greene’s whiskey priest, who committed to his calling despite his own failings and in the face of wickedness.

Wikileaks exposed civilian killings by a US chopper in Iraq. It showed climate change scientists diddling numbers and the dark farce of Scientology. Yet the gush of revelations hasn’t always garnered unconditional support.

Former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may be thoroughly unaccomplished, but her private emails shouldn’t have been published. Recently, an Ethiopian journalist fled the country after his name popped up in an uncensored Wikileaks release. He felt threatened when authorities, as a result, made inquiries.

Supporters say Wikileaks has had no dire consequences for individuals or nations. This may be more about luck than design.

Assange himself doesn’t much talk about consequences. He seems oddly unmoved by the details of his leaks. His passions run wildest when he attacks various powers for his stranded state.

His appeal is obvious enough – small versus big, campaigner versus the empire. We don’t trust governments and his works feeds our scepticism. He has made the powerful look weak. He puts backroom deals on newspaper front pages. Why does he do it? Whistleblowers usually emerge for two main reasons – money or conscience. Assange is oddly removed from either.

His white hair and the eerie calm seem straight out of central casting. His mystery could apply equally to a goodie or baddie. He thinks secrets are there to be exposed, yet has offered only fragments of his own story.

“When you watch the footage of him recently, he’s waving to the crowd almost like a monarch does,” psychologist Tim Watson-Munro says. He ascribes to Assange an extraordinary intelligence and a “rock star” quality driven, perhaps, by a dollop of narcissism.

Decades ago, Watson-Munro was involved in a court case in which Assange pleaded guilty to computer hacking charges. Hackers, he says, often hack for no grander reason than they can.

“What drives Assange?” he asks. “I don’t know. Perhaps a well-guided or misguided belief that in some way he is assisting humanity. He thrives on the attention. If he’s trying to improve the lot of the world then, paradoxically, he may have set the course back somewhat.”

Maybe Ms Gillard got as close as anyone else when she described the Wikileaks releases as “anarchic”.

Assange’s acceptance speech at the Walkley Awards in November seemed more about petulance than principles. The rant about Gillard wanting Obama’s job didn’t make sense.

The imagery released the spectre of Peter Garrett, once a rock star with the Messianic bearing. Garrett now is just another politician.

Let’s hope Assange isn’t already going the same way.

— Patrick Carlyon is a senior writer at The Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne.


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