Julian Assange scratches his chin and then downs a generous gulp of his pint. “They called me a cat abuser. Now I don’t like cats as it turns out, but as far as I know I’ve never ‘abused’ one,” he says, looking around the table slightly bemused.
The WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief is now arguably the world’s most recognisable — and certainly the most notorious — champion of free speech.
But he also knows first hand how it feels to be burned by the press, and Assange bristles as he recalls some of the more bizarre personal attacks on his character.
Assange has paid a heavy price for his global crusade against secrecy.
He has been hunted, jailed and put under house arrest. And his activities have subjected him to some of the most hate-filled and violent rhetoric imaginable.
Assange has also been pilloried and abused by certain sections of the media, whose freedoms he continues to fight for.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, the world’s most famous whistleblower hit out at the “chilling effect” recent high profile ‘super injunctions’ have on free speech.
“It’s not the case that the press is never wrong. I never maintain that the press is never wrong, and certainly I have been wronged many times by (some) tabloid media.
“However, when we erect a system to address that wrong we can produce a much greater wrong, which is to prevent the press from reporting the abuses of the powerful.
“The problem is that that system is used predominantly — in fact overwhelmingly — by people who already have a lot of power. They already have a lot of money, they already know how to use the court system. And so you end up in a situation where newspapers become reluctant to report on the abuses of the powerful, but completely willing to report on the abuses of the powerless, or to defame the powerless, and that is not an acceptable situation. So there has to be a level playing field, there has to be equal access to justice.”
Six months ago Assange was — albeit briefly — the most famous fugitive in the world. And he remains, in many eyes, the ‘public enemy number one’, certainly for some of the shadowy US government agencies trying to shut down his organisation.
The interview took place in Ellingham Hall, the mansion on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk where Assange temporarily resides under house arrest while fighting extradition to Sweden. The Swedish authorities want to question Assange over allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, made by two women, claims he strongly denies.
And he believes if he is extradited to Sweden, the US government will move to have him tried in America for espionage.
“I have been detained — imprisoned or under house arrest — without being charged for six months on June 6.
“So almost six months now detained without charge. There are no charges in this case, there is no allegation that there was any lack of consent in these cases — not even an allegation of that.”
His bail conditions stipulate Assange must stay at the 18th century manor, report to police daily and wear an electronic tag. The house is owned by Vaughan Smith, a former captain in the elite Grenadier Guards who was critical in securing bail for Assange.
When he first came to Britain, it was Smith who gave him refuge in an apartment in the Frontline Club — the West London venue that Smith set up in 2003 to champion independent journalism. On the morning of our interview, Assange was anxious to finish on time. Smith was expecting up to 30 former army comrades for dinner and it was clear his famous guest did not wish to put out his host any more than necessary.
Afterwards, Assange and his assistant Sarah Harrison joined us for a few drinks in a cosy country pub a mile or so down the road. It is about as far as he is allowed to move without consulting the local police station, where he still has to sign on daily as part of his bail conditions.
Despite the enormous pressure he is under, Assange appeared relaxed about his fate and was looking forward to his next court battle — a two-day High Court hearing on July 12-13 where he will fight a British judge’s decision to extradite him to Sweden.
In person, the 39-year-old Australian is unfailingly polite and charming. But behind every carefully constructed sentence lies a remorseless, uncompromising logic, which has put him on a collision course with some of the most powerful forces on the planet.
To his fans, Assange is a valiant campaigner for truth. But to his fiercest critics he is a publicity seeker who has endangered lives by putting a mass of sensitive information into the public domain.
The controversial online activist succeeded in uniting the American Democratic left and Republican right against him and has been described as an “enemy combatant” engaged in a form of cyber terrorism against the US.
Assange said the level of “vitriolic” language that followed the release of the international tranche of US embassy cables last December has “eased off a bit” in recent months.
But he insists that, behind the scenes, the American government will still stop at nothing to silence him.
“The United States has brought out to the public an extremely aggressive response. In private, it is also doing other things.
“That response has been the most aggressive response to an international publisher ever.
“Arguably, if we look at its responses to domestic publishers it has been the most severe response since the McCarthyism era of the early 1950s.
“There has been pressure on many different countries — individually by the US — to take action against us.
That pressure on Australia, for instance, resulted in the Australian government publicly announcing that it would suspend my passport, that it would start a whole new government taskforce into us involving domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Department and the Attorney General’s office.
“A prospective asylum application in Switzerland on my behalf had the US Ambassador to Switzerland threaten the Swiss government to not accept such an application.
“The sort of public rhetoric that you saw by the (US) vice president (Joe Biden) at the beginning of the year as saying that I was a ‘hi-tech terrorist’ — this is being toned down a little bit.
“I think there is a perception that the public rhetoric went too far. But under the surface these investigations continue.”