Julian Assange. The name itself evokes a certain emotional response, does it not? “Ick, a Russian agent,” for example, or “Ick, an accused rapist,” or “Ick, that creepy little pale creature holed up like a rat for years in an embassy.”
Let’s grant for the moment that Assange is all that. But what else? From the standpoint of a journalist, Assange is not a fellow journalist, as he’s often been called, but a source. As such, only two questions about him are immediately pertinent to a reporter: first, is his information accurate? Second, is it newsworthy?
As to the presidential campaign of 2016, the answer to each of those questions was an incontrovertible yes. None of the facts, data, quotations or narratives ever released by WikiLeaks have turned out to be false. WikiLeaks was a great idea, and, initially, a great many journalists agreed. By inviting people to submit government secrets confidentially, WikiLeaks got huge amounts of information, apparently including the Chelsea Manning leaks. These leaks were always of a kind that have been heavily sought by media figures. Journalists are the natural enemies of secrecy — or they’re supposed to be — and Assange and Wikileaks were breaking through the porous walls of an absurdly large and arbitrary cache of government classification.
Assange, the founder and guiding spirit of WikiLeaks, has been effectively a prisoner in London for seven years. He feared extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted on rape charges. That case has since collapsed and been dropped, but during its pendency the government of Ecuador allowed him a kind of asylum in their London embassy. Assange is still not able to leave, and his health reportedly is deteriorating. Few are the journalists who have come to his defense or questioned his persecution.
That, apparently, is because Assange is accused of having been a tool of the Kremlin in its meddling with the 2016 US election and, perhaps more to the point, because that meddling may well be to blame for Hillary Clinton’s astonishing Electoral College loss to Donald Trump. Some also believe Assange was harmful to American interests by divulging a few government secrets.
As to the quality of his information and the fact that it was news, none of that matters in the slightest. To the extent of those considerations, journalists should regard him as valuable. All of the trouble with Assange does matter, however, in that it raises a couple of other questions that are both fascinating and important — making them news, too. Where did he get his information? And what were, and are, his motives?
The New York Times, and almost no other outlet, did some pretty good work on those questions prior to the election. The Grey Lady also published a superb op-ed detailing the paper’s history with shady Assange, and their decisions to go with much of his information.
Assange is an arrogant, unkempt, unlikeable, disreputable person. Still, the Ecuadorians found sufficient reason to take him in. That he hasn’t emerged from their London embassy suggests that he fears something far worse than his virtual prison. Trump, who was clearly helped by Russia in the election, and once professed to “love WikiLeaks,” can’t be believed and may or may not pardon or otherwise assist Assange. Without such assistance, Assange’s extradition to the US will be swift, his fate uncertain and certainly unsavory.
I call for the end of Assange’s persecution. He set out to expose government secrets because, according to him, much of the secrecy is about covering up injustice. His work did uncover a great many government secrets, here and abroad. That WikiLeaks did so should be a cause of admiration for journalists. That some of it seemed to have helped Trump and hurt Clinton was a political consequence of no official or professional concern to journalists.
Free Julian Assange. Please.