It’s often quite an interesting experiment to cast your mind back and think: “What was I doing a year ago today?”. It could be for a specific reason – a birthday, an anniversary – or for no reason at all. How does your life shape up compared to a year ago? Better? Worse? The same? It’s an interesting lens through which to construct a personal history as without comparison and context, there is very little meaning.
Anyway, enough of my cod profundities. I’m writing about what happened a year ago for two reasons. Firstly, child three is one on Wednesday and I find rather frightening that a year has passed so quickly. He was born a month early and his birth was a bit of shock to put it mildly. As indeed was his conception. Cue excuse for cute baby photo:
Anyway, I’m not going to dribble on about babies – well not today, anyway. Instead I’m going to talk about Julian Assange – remember him?
This time last year, everyone was talking about Julian Assange, the silver haired Australian whose WikiLeaks website had published all sorts of bad stuff found in secret diplomatic cables. Stuff about the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay and the Church of Scientology. Stuff involving people like David Cameron, like Bush, like the Clintons, like Blair. All the bad guys basically. Assange was public enemy number one for all the establishment which took it upon itself to try and take out WikiLeaks. Not just the US Government or the CIA but big business; companies like Paypal and VISA made it impossible for people to donate money to the website.
Obviously, this all served to make Assange even more of a hero to Lefties, Liberals and other Guardian reading types. The fragrant Jemima Khan offered sanctuary to this champion of free speech. My husband became obsessed with Assange and was very excited when it emerged that he would be the star turn at an event run by the New Statesman, debating the role of whistleblowers in society.
Here’s a report on the event:
So on an unusually hot April afternoon – last year’s April was hot and March cold, the exact opposite of this year – off we trundled to Kensington Town Hall. I had reached the beached whale stage of pregnancy – swollen legs, swollen feet, the overall feeling that my body was about to explode. Like something out of Alien.
The atmosphere at Kensington Town Hall, a posh yet municipal building you felt was more suited to the second marriages of posh divorcees than a debate on the rights of whistleblowers, was electric. Crowds of journalists and camera crews milled round hoping to catch a sight of Assange, then in hiding. In addition to the charges surrounding WikiLeaks, Assange had also been accused of sexual misconduct by two Swedish women; a warrant for his extradition to Sweden had been issued which he had challenged in the Court of Appeal.
The debate itself was redundant – quite frankly, would a crowd of New Statesman reading Lefties, all of whom had bought tickets to come and see their hero, vote against Assange? It all seemed a bit silly. Everyone was just waiting to have a look at him.
Then he appeared, in a blizzard of flashbulbs, flanked by the delightful Ms Khan, who looked every bit as glamorous as she does in the papers. Assange looked like a computer programmer in his Sunday best – what you see is what you get.
I sound like I’m being unfair here, but he didn’t really blow me away. His speech was stilted and the whole thing had too much of the air of pantomime about it. The crazy amount of pregnancy hormones swirling around in my brain made it hard for me to concentrate. Which is a shame, as the goal of WikiLeaks is truly rather wonderful and VERY IMPORTANT. Its mission statement is as follows:
“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”
In other words, WikiLeaks is using technology (not surprisingly for a former hacker like Assange) to highlight the many crimes perpetrated by governments. Crimes that a complicit media (owned by people like Murdoch) is not going to highlight. WikiLeaks is everything that the corporate media is not. WikiLeaks is one of the few places it might be possible to learn the truth.
For Assange, the process of leaking is a political act. The mission statement continues:
“the more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Assange appear on 15th October, the day that Occupy London took over St Paul’s – the plan was to occupy the Stock Exchange but since it is private property, the protest moved to the steps of Wren’s great cathedral.
Again, the popping flashbulbs, the cheer, the sense of a new Messiah. An exhilarating day, but also one that was filled with paranoia and dread. Was this the start of something big or the beginning of the end of our right to protest?
I loved the Occupy Movement and visited St Paul’s many times. I love the slogan: “We Are the 99 per cent”. I think – like Assange’s WikiLeaks – Occupy got us all talking and got stuff onto the news agenda that had been sadly neglected. WikiLeaks exposed secrecy and the undemocratic way in which Governments conduct their affairs; Occupy hammered home the growing gulf between rich and poor and brought words like “casino capitalism”, “banksters” and “neo-liberalism” into the pages of mainstream newspapers. I am glad that Assange had the vision to create WikiLeaks and glad that the Occupy Movement made us look at our world critically for a moment.
Obviously, both WikiLeaks and Occupy would be nothing without the internet and give credence to the seductive belief that revolution is only a few clicks away. Out in cyberspace you can tell the truth, organize new political movements and basically change the world for the better. You can create an Arab Spring. You can stop Murdoch. You can make a difference.
I love the internet as much as anyone and believe it has changed all our lives for the better. But to see it as somehow transcending power or government or vested interests is just nonsense. A friend of mine recently received a visit from the boys in blue for some dodgy tweets, while recent reports highlighting plans to monitor all our emails have predictably resulted in outrage.
To conclude: as the net tightens on our civil liberties online, we need someone like Assange more than ever. I feel a bit embarrassed that I was underwhelmed by his speech and should have given him the respect he deserves. He is planning to stand for the Australian Senate and I wish him every success.