First, before getting onto the subject in the headline, a restatement of the basic message in my excessive tweets re last night’s Paralympics opening ceremony. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Danny Boyle’s Olympics ceremony made me proud to be British, and proud to be Northern. Last night’s made me proud to be a citizen of a country and a world of real values and where the power of the human spirit remains the greatest force on earth.
Back to more mundane matters … I haven’t written much about Julian Assange. He doesn’t do it for me either way, I’m afraid, so I am neither with those who see him as some kind of freedom-fighting Messiah against the evils of power, in particular American power; nor do I see him as some kind of peculiar evil. I think the world probably talks about him too much already, but not least because some of you keep asking me to, I will say a few words.
The WikiLeaks story was an important and interesting one. But like all important and interesting stories in the 24 hour media age, it got so much ventilation that it moved from story to soap opera, and that is kind of where we are with it now. There was some bad stuff in the cables. There was some irresponsible handling of it, not least by Assange, some good handling of it by some in the media, some sensible reaction, some less so. But it probably wasn’t worth quite the fuss it generated for so long.
As for the soap element, well in the era of Downtown Abbey, we have already had the Assange stately home as a place of refuge all those long and wintry doorsteps ago, and now we have the Ecuadorean Embassy. And of course we have had the one magic ingredient that every 24 hour media soap story needs, not just in the tabloids … sex. In Sweden. Now you’re talking.
On a plane yesterday, with a few hours to kill, I picked up a few news magazines at the airport. British, American, French, German. He was in all of them, not huge, not as he was in the early days of this saga, but in there, the shot of him on the Embassy balcony speaking to ‘supporters’ and police.
Whether Time or Newsweek, The Economist or The Week, Le Point or Der Spiegel, they know a picture. So does he. So the sober tie and the blue shirt; the notes; the cops in the foreground worrying about a sudden dash to the airport … these were not stories about sex, this was a story about freedom and power. He was fighting for freedom. Against power.
The Ecuadorean flag and the Embassy symbol showed he had new friends in the fight too. We have heard a lot about them, and a lot from them. Indeed in some of the magazines there was more interest in President Rafael Correa than there was in Mr Assange. Politics in Latin America, as elsewhere, is in a state of flux. Other powerful leaders are ill. Some are in political trouble. There is an opportunity, and he is taking it, meanwhile getting himself on the side of the small against the big, the little freedom fighter standing up to the mighty evil that is America. With an election a few months away.
If I had ended that sentence about the mighty evil with the word ‘Sweden’, you would have thought I had lost the plot. Yet Assange’s continued presence inside the London Embassy compound rests on the notion that Sweden, which strikes me as something of a fair play kind of place, would not play fair if he landed on their soil to face up to the allegations of sexual crimes that have been made against him.
For his own reasons, Correa prefers to put to one side the sex allegations part of the soap. And for his reasons, Assange wants to do the same. They are partners in this whole endeavour, with different things to gain.
But if Assange were to stand back from it all, which I know must be difficult, and analyse it from the perspective of the values and philosophy said to have bought WikiLeaks into being, what in reality would he conclude? Surely that if his burning light is freedom of information, and openness to the channels of power so that people know what is being done in their name, he should not be there, allowing himself to be used in the way Correa is using him.
This is a President whose government has shut down 19 radio stations and a TV channel while developing their own state run media empire. A President who sees a critical column not as part of the rough and tumble of political debate, but the inspiration for a libel suit which led to a journalist and newspaper directors being jailed and fined tens of millions of pounds, a decision reverted only after a diplomatic backlash, but which still saw the journalist fleeing the country. It is a President who fought and won a referendum to get greater powers in the courts. And meanwhile as Correa stands up to help Assange avoid a trip to Sweden, he may well be poised to reverse a decision to extradite a businessman wanted in … Belarus.
Somewhere along the way, I think Mr Assange’s moral compass has gone askew, and Mr Correa is, for now at least, the one who is gaining the most.
The one thing that might move me to have a bit of respect and admiration for Mr Assange would be if he were to come out and say that a country like this, with a president with these views on media freedom, is not one from which he can take support and sustenance. Sweden, on the other hand, has a reputation for being fair and just, and he should let their system look at the allegations that have been made.
Then one day, as one of these magazines reported him as saying this is all having a bad effect on his children, he might be able to see them. Meantime, I think the time to leave the Ecuadorean chapter of the soap has been reached, and the Stockholm episode should begin in earnest. I suspect if it did, the Washington chapter would never be written, because Mr Assange would either be punished for crimes he is shown to have committed, or allowed to go free. And I suspect deep down, both Correa and Assange think that too.