Sometimes it seems like WikiLeaks is the new Scientology, a post-religious cult of personality that thinks itself above reproach. Both have their celebrity backers, both have a less than rosy view of those outside of the fold and both seem unable to take criticism or comment from anyone. Both can count on a fanatical core of supporters and both position themselves squarely outside of the ‘establishment’.Both have strange and mysterious founders.
Julian Assange, the Australian activist who set up WikiLeaks, is undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of good. He and his colleagues have exposed the inner workings of the global elite, from governments to big business, and allowed for a frank and factually informed debate on the nature of modern society. Gone are the days where commentators could only insist, like gawping conspiracy theorists, that the government was watching us but offer no proof. Now one can find, with nothing more than an internet connection, well documented evidence of NSA and GCHQ electronic surveillance or potential war crimes committed by western troops in the Middle East or the murderous inner workings of Guantanamo Bay, to give but a few examples. WikiLeaks has revolutionised the relationship between power and the people.
But there is, as ever, another side to WikiLeaks, and in particular to Julian Assange. For over a year and a half Assange has resided in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, claiming political asylum. He is accused of a number of counts of sexual molestation or harassment (the exact working varies on translation) in Sweden and should he step out onto the streets of London will be arrested and extradited to the continent to stand trial. While he has continued to work and even run for political office from inside the Ecuadorian embassy he is, in effect, under house arrest there.
Assange and his supporters claim that the charges are baseless and have been concocted in an attempt to smear his name and even as a pretext to allow the Swedish authorities to hand him over to the United States, where his role in leaking so many classified documents would doubtless see him stand trial. Here the similarities between WikiLeaks and Tom Cruise’s favoured religion rear their pustuled head. In a blind, almost hysterical defense of Assange against this plot there has been little mentioned of the uncomfortable reality that what he is accused of is as likely to be true as it is to be a concoction of lies.
While this is year old news, the leniency afforded to Assange over the charges against him is all the more troubling given the string of high-profile rape cases in recent weeks and how they have been handled in the press. Some have rightly observed that we seem to be turning a corner in the way sexual assault and harassment is discussed but that we’re still a long way off getting the balance right. In the UK the endless parade of high-profile trials resulting from Operation Yewtree may be miasmaticly depressing, but they do at least show that we are taking accusations of sexual assault far more seriously than when most of the alleged offenses took place. In America twenty year old allegations of child rape against Woody Allen are back in the spotlight, with many asking why the victim blaming and rape apology of his supporters has been tolerated for so long. We are, it seems, getting somewhere.
So why doesn’t Julian Assange get the same treatment? The left can be applauded for the way it has dissected the hypocrisy and confusion around the cases of Saville, Allen and co yet it remains curiously silent over a man who, broadly speaking, has earned plaudits for his work as an activist. One recent article in the New Statesman named Assange as another in a long line of men who get believed purely because of their gender. Other than that there has been precious little. Maybe its time the media, however grateful we are for what WikiLeaks has done for us, started asking a few more questions of its leader.