This is an extract from Hugo Rifkind’s column in this week’s Spectator, out on Thursday
Poor Julian Assange. Call me a contrarian but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for the guy. He’s just made such a mess of his life, hasn’t he? And with such promise. Only a few short years ago he was the world’s most prominent anti-everything activist, with hair like an indie guitarist, feted and worshipped wherever you might find hot Scandinavian revolutionaries, smug old men who work for ‘theguardian’ and Jemima Khan. Now he’s a hermit with hair like Noel Edmonds who lives in a cupboard. It’s a hell of a fall.
Most crushingly, he’s become a figure of fun. Perhaps you noticed him holding a press conference last week, to announce that he might soon leave the Ecuadorian embassy but probably wouldn’t, or something. Journalists did, and Twitter resounded with their hoots of derision. This chump! Remember him? What, does he have a book out?
As it happens, yes. He does have a book out. But nobody will care. There was a time, not so long ago, when British media was in awe of Assange, broadsided by scoop after scoop from sources we couldn’t get near, via methods we couldn’t comprehend.
Yet the Assange show got old, long ago. Those who worked with him he turned upon. Those who merely watched him have observed a sketchy relationship with the truth that makes even the most dubious tabloid hack look like a priest with his hand on a Bible. So often has he shouted the words ‘house arrest’ and ‘detention without trial’ that he possibly even believes them. But nobody else does. Assange has had no trial because he refuses to go to Sweden, where any trial would be. He’s under house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy only because he himself refuses to leave it. A ‘siege’, his people call it, perhaps while touching themselves intimately. They claim that Britain has spent £7 million on keeping him there. But Britain isn’t keeping him there. He is.
He has taken the rhetoric of the truly dispossessed and persecuted, and made himself into a blasphemy of it. His fear, he says, is not of trial in Sweden (he is wanted for questioning on allegations of sex offences) but of subsequent extradition to the United States. This may even be true; almost certainly he’d be out in Sweden by now even if he’d been found guilty and been banged up for it. But his demands are absurd.
He wants America to rule out charging him over Wikileaks; Sweden to question him here instead of there; Britain to let him board a flight to Ecuador. He claims half the time to be a champion of those for whom oppression means violence and brutality. To him, it means not rearranging your legal system to his maximum convenience. He may of course be guilty of nothing in Sweden whatsoever. But he is wholly guilty, here and now, of being a right royal pain in the arse.
The terrible irony, of course, is that many journalists are poised to swing behind Assange, and have been for years. The big Wikileaks disclosures were brutal, callous exercises in journalism; the very definition of great publishing power exercised without any responsibility at all. Yet that makes him a nasty and stupid journalist of a novel sort, not a criminal or a spy. And as all hacks know, once you start banging hacks up for being stupid and nasty — well, where will it end?
Assange is a blinkered zealot, a conspiracy theorist, a narcissist and a nut. He has the politics of a teenage boy who has read too much Chomsky (which is any Chomsky). But he is not a stupid man, and there remain few people who understand the frontiers of digital freedom with such precision. He got there backwards, I think, hacking not for liberty, but preaching liberty to justify his hacking. Yet in the end that doesn’t really matter. Possibly he will never go to Sweden and probably, if he does, America will never come calling for his scalp. Yet if America ever does, it’s worth remembering that his unpleasantness, irresponsibility, ego, mendacity and even his alleged sexual proclivities shouldn’t change which side we ought to be on. We just have to hope he doesn’t enjoy it too much.