Assange’s Testy Q&A with the BBC

BBC 4 radio host John Humphrys this morning scored the first broadcast interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange since his release on bail last week. Humphrys visited Assange at the East Anglia mansion in which he is holed up under strict bail conditions. The testy back-and-forth is dominated by discussion of the rape allegations leveled at Assange, and his refusal to return to Sweden to face questioning on them. While the meatier issues at the heart of WikiLeaks are given pretty short shrift, the interview is definitely worth a read or listen, providing a pretty fascinating snapshot of Assange’s current state of mind and what he believes his organization is achieving. A transcript and audio of the interview can be found on the BBC’s website here.

Humphrys opens with the rape allegations, and what he sees as a potential hypocrisy in how Assange has handled them.

Q: Everything you say may be true. I’ve no way of judging that. But, surely you can see how very, very damaging, at the very least, it is to somebody like you, somebody who has spent a large part of his life saying: “People are accountable. We must have systems that do transparency. We must have systems under which the public knows what’s going on and people can be held to account.” And here you are facing, possibly facing, very, very serious charges indeed, double rape even, is a possibility - and you are saying: “I will not go back to the country where those offences are alleged to have been carried out to face the music.”

JA: No, I have never said that.

Q: In that case you can catch the next plane back to Sweden.

JA: No, I do things according to proper process. I stayed in Sweden for five weeks to enable that proper process to occur. Proper process did not occur. I left as part of, you know, just my normal course of activity - no complaints from the Swedish government. I have an organisation to run. I have my people to defend. There are other things at stake here… There are other things at stake here. I have a serious brewing extradition case in relation to the United States. I have a serious organisation to run. People affiliated with our organisation have already been assassinated. My work is serious. I do not have to run off to random states simply because some prosecutor is abusing a process in those states.

Assange believes the Swedish prosecution has leaked material to British newspapers (and, in a Times interview, he admonishes the Guardian for having cherry-picked from the supposed leaks).

JA: Most of what we know is, in fact, from the newspapers because somehow the Swedish prosecution has been, deliberately and illegally, selectively taking bits of its material and giving them to newspapers.

Q: Can’t you see that it’s a bit rum for you to be sitting there under these circumstances. You, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks man, who’s become terribly famous, as has your organisation, for leaking material that other people didn’t want to see published and here you are saying: “They’ve leaked something about me.”

JA: Not at all. We are an organisation that does not promote leaking. We’re an organisation that promotes justice…

Q: You hardly discourage it when you print a couple of million private cables.

JA: … that promotes justice through the mechanism of transparency and journalism.

Q: Based on leaks.

JA: When a powerful organisation that has internal policies, that is meant to be creating and following the law, i.e. Swedish prosecution’s judicial system, abuses its own regulation and its own position to attack an individual, that is an abuse of power.

Assange also says he believes the two women embroiled in the allegations may have been “bamboozled into this by police and others. These women may be victims in this process.”

In the excerpt that is already, and utterly predictably, making headlines, Humphrys gets down in the muck, quizzing Assange repeatedly on whether he slept with the two women in question before addressing his reputation as “some sort of sexual predator.”

Q: The allegation against you, the very broad allegation that’s been made over and over again in the media over recent days is that you’re some sort of sexual predator who has sex with a large number of young women, ideally without a condom, and that you do it because you can, effectively, because in some cases they’re groupies or they’re enthralled to your fame or whatever it is. Are you a sexual predator?

JA: That’s ridiculous. Of course not.

Q: How many women have you slept with?

JA: That’s a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell, not only does a gentleman like to talk about his private life, a gentleman certainly doesn’t count.

On the question of the embassy cables themselves, Humphrys and Assange get into the debate which has been doing the rounds since the first Iraq megaleak, and before that: just what is the value of the leaks? Humphrys appears to be on the side of those who would dismiss revelations from the latest leaks as idle gossip, until he changes his mind…

Q: You will have released, by the time it’s all over—Cablegate—maybe a quarter of a million documents… A lot of it’s fascinating. A lot of it’s intriguing. But it’s tittle-tattle. It’s the kind of thing an ambassador would tell his boss at home just because it’s something he’s found out. In whose interest is it that we should all of this stuff?

JA: With respect it is not tittle-tattle. There’s is very, very serious matters in there. When the head of the state or an ambassador is reporting what you call tittle-tattle, it is no longer tittle-tattle. It is either very dangerous poisonous political gossip, or it is the truth.

Q: This is very different from releasing, for instance, the kind of information that was released relating to sensitive sites, in some cases important security sites. In whose interest was it to do that, apart from people who might potentially benefit, like terrorists?

JA: Your suggestion was that it is tittle-tattle. Now you are saying that this is something that is serious.

Q: I said the vast majority of it was tittle-tattle but I would also suggest to you that some of it was dangerous.

JA: I believe none of it is dangerous. Vastly more detailed things have been released by the United States government itself, by Congress. For example, a year-and-a-half ago it released a list of all US nuclear sites.

Toward the end of the interview, Humphrys asks what Assange believes WikiLeaks has achieved. He responds:

Already we see that we have changed governance, we have certainly changed many political figures within governments, we have caused new law reform efforts, we have caused police investigations into the abuses we expose, UN investigations, investigations here in the UK especially in relation to our revelation of the circumstances of the deaths of 109,000 people in Iraq. Before Cablegate, the change is so vast that I cannot, and my whole team cannot, even keep track of it.

Does he want to change the world? “Absolutely.”

The world has a lot of problems and they need to be reformed. And we only live once. Every person who has some ability to do something about it, if they are a person of good character, has the duty to try and fix the problems in the environment which they’re in.

That is a value, that, yes, comes partly from my temperament. There is also a value that comes from my father, which is that capable, generous men don’t create victims, they try and save people from becoming victims. That is what they are tasked to do. If they do not do that they are not worthy of respect or they are not capable.

We may have to wait for the Assange memoirs for further elaboration. The Guardian is reporting online that he has sold his memoirs to Canongate in the UK and Knopf in the U.S. The news, aptly, was leaked.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.