Denied his appeal against extradition to Sweden, Assange return to his gigs at a British countryside manor. Mike Giglio talks to the libertarian sheltering the WikiLeaks founder.
At the Frontline Club, a convivial hangout for journalists in London’s Paddington neighborhood, the audience was packed in tight to watch Wednesday evening’s panel debate on Occupy London—and one panelist in particular, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and current ward of the British court system. Seated onstage in a brown leather jacket, Assange looked a little weary. “I’ve had a hard day,” he told the crowd.
Hours earlier, a British high court had denied his appeal against extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question the 40-year-old Australian over allegations of sexual assault. Assange’s chances of staying put in Britain have become slimmer than ever. Though there is still some legal wrangling ahead, he could find himself in a Swedish jail by the end of the month.
In the meantime, Assange will return to the unlikely place he’s called home for the last 11 months: a 10-bedroom manor house in the British countryside, in the beautiful, rolling lands on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, surrounded by 600 acres of woods, farms, and fields. His host, who stepped in at Assange’s darkest hour last December when a court refused to let the WikiLeaks founder post bail unless he had a permanent address in Britain, is Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club and avid campaigner for journalistic freedoms.
Smith is no ordinary WikiLeaks supporter. A former Army officer who made his name as a videographer and war correspondent, and a man with a self-professed libertarian bent, the 48-year-old Smith has allowed Assange to use his family estate as an indefinite permanent address and living quarters. (Previously, Assange had been staying in a room at the Frontline Club.) Assange has to heed certain terms of his bail—reportedly wearing an electronic ankle bracelet, and checking in with the local police station daily—but is otherwise free to run WikiLeaks from Ellingham Hall, where Smith lives with his wife and children.
At the time of Smith’s offer, he told the press that his decision to house Assange wasn’t about whether what he’d done with WikiLeaks was right or wrong; it was about “standing up to the bully” and “whether our country, in these historic times, really was the tolerant, independent, and open place I had been brought up to believe it was and feel that it needs to be.” Sitting at a table at the Frontline Club before Assange’s appearance on Wednesday evening, as diners feasted on a menu of organic produce and free-range game from his manor grounds, Smith spoke about his relationship with Assange and the motivations for taking him under his roof.
“I support Julian in terms of the manner in which he is delivering us an opportunity to talk about really important stuff,” Smith says. “I think it’s important that we are encouraged to discuss secrecy in our society. It’s good for us.”
While Smith’s initial defense of Assange may have been primarily ideological, he’s grown fond of the man who has shared his home for close to a year. “I have seen a human side of him that hasn’t been represented in the press,” Smith says. “He is incredibly popular with my children, who see him as sort of an uncle figure. He’s somebody who gives you time … He’s odd, because in some regards he’s a team player, and in other regards he’s not a team player, insofar as you know he’s always very firm about his own views and doesn’t necessarily change them very often, and you can have rows with him. But he’s somebody who will listen to you, and he’s somebody who will give you time and give you attention and help you.”
On top of that, Assange makes a good companion at cocktail hour. “You can’t understate the importance of this, he’s damn good company over a glass of wine,” Smith says. “He’s damn good company. He’s one of these people who spend his whole life trying to be a walking encyclopedia, so he’ll always have a view of something.”
That’s not to say the living situation has been ideal. Smith is quick to clarify: “It’s not an easy domestic arrangement. I mean, how could it be? Of course it’s been difficult, but I’m incredibly proud of my family and how we as a family have made it work, and also how Julian has made it work.”