Adjudicating aberrance: Assange and the Australian state

Something might be rotten in the state of Denmark, but who would believe it of the lucky country? Yet the coalition government, Labor opposition and much of the Australian intellectual, cultural and media commentariat has in recent years consistently betrayed not merely an important Australian citizen, but the very ethos we like to imagine as uniquely our own: the capacity to adjudicate moral conflict with decency and good sense, an attention to facts, and an egalitarian concern with a ‘fair go’ for all.

We also like to believe our liberal-democratic politics, and polity, is imbued with a healthy dose of larrikin irreverence towards inflated authority, especially where that authority has proven to be unworthy of respect, let alone reverence. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and those tired old tropes don’t apply anymore.

In the past decade, and especially during Trump’s tenure, the same polity threw off that long-cherished self-image, like an outworn illusion. It abased itself and its sovereign interests to a foreign power, assumed to be justified in arrogating those interests to serve its own.

How is this possible? The plain answer is that the political and cultural establishment, as well as much of Australian civil society, lost the courage of its alleged convictions.

Most obviously, the national media across the ideological spectrum were more or less willing to ridicule and rue the mendacity, dysfunction and moral perniciousness of Trump and his administration, but when it came to that same administration’s persecution of Assange, it preferred to keep prudentially mum, as if Trump’s Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions, and the CIA under Mike Pompeo, had perfectly sound reasons for rebooting a manhunt that the Obama administration in 2013 had dropped as inconsistent with the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment.

It might not even have been clear what these reasons were, judging by the Australian coverage of the case. But to prosecute Assange and Wikileaks for the publication of state secrets would also mean prosecuting the American and British media establishment for doing the same: the so-called ‘New York Times problem’. Unsurprisingly, the theme of the erosion of press freedoms loomed large in the press-coverage during and after the extradition hearing in London last September, and again in the course of the latest resolution in early January this year, decided (ambiguously) in Assange’s favour.

That judicial judgement did not concern itself with its own implications for a free press. Biden’s Department of Justice has appealed the decision to deny Assange’s extradition, and US civil liberties and media organisations are making a concerted push to have those charges decisively dropped.

Both London hearings also gave witness to a quasi-judicial process that, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer and Reporters Without Borders, was riddled with prejudicial and undue process. Since his incarceration in Belmarsh prison in April 2019, and before then, Assange has been subject to increasing abuse: surveilled in a sanctioned place of asylum, after his arrest kept under state auspices alongside terrorists, murderers and first-degree offenders, in solitary confinement, and often medicated. Yet Assange had been convicted of none of the charges assumed to have been brought against him.

Few among the domestic commentariat stepped up to publicly and unequivocally assert that, at the least, there might be good grounds to defend Assange, as an Australian citizen, against a decade of the unjustified abuse of his person and his reputation. There have been exceptions more broadly – and beyond of course Assange’s own legal counsel in Jennifer Robinson – not least in the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, comprising MPs Andrew Wilkie, George Christensen, and Peter Whish-Wilson among others, as well as media, political and legal commentators including Phillip Adams, Mark Davis, Mary Kostakidis, Greg Barnes, Dean Yates, Wendy Bacon, Lissa Johnson, Bob Carr, Elizabeth Farrelly, and most visibly John Pilger and John Shipton, among few others. These and others have maintained a variable resistance to years of disinformation and defamation surrounding Assange’s name.

But it’s a minimal chorus, singing from a sinking ship, not merely in moral support of Assange, but in service to that justice that would see a bipartisan consensus reject any US administration’s attempts to extradite an Australian citizen, for the reason of his having exercised a legitimate freedom of speech in the public interest. The same justice would also see the Australian public express justified outrage, rather than limp acquiescence, towards the extraterritorial exceptionalism of American rights of extradition. It would above all see Australia reclaim its national moral integrity.

What explains this general silence? Assange’s perceived status as a rapist, and his apparently decisive role in the electoral downing of Hillary Clinton in 2016, have it appears for the liberal left warranted the blanket dismissal of any genuine consideration of his own rights of self-defence. In 2019 the investigation into the allegations of rape of a decade before was dropped, essentially as lacking sufficient evidence – apart from that indicating overt prosecutorial malfeasance, as documented in Melzer’s report with access to original Swedish documents.

The Special Rapporteur’s account is exhaustive and persuasive. He and others have also concluded that emails exchanged between Swedish prosecutors and the British Crown Prosecution Service in 2012 (some which were admitted to have been destroyed by the latter) demonstrated a will to sustain the narrative that effectively made a prosecutorial fiction a fait accompli, despite the absence of any charges being made, let alone demonstrated in a court of law.

During nine years, Assange’s lawyers made over thirty offers to arrange for his presence in Sweden to comply with the preliminary investigation, on the guarantee that this would not serve as a pretext for his extradition to the US- These offers were rejected, and charges were in fact never laid. One would think such an extended miscarriage of justice, with respect to both Assange and his alleged victims, would interest the national press in Assange’s own country. But of the increasing depravity of the conditions of Assange’s persecution over the past decade, again barely a word was publicly uttered by the cultural or literary establishment.

Then there is the ubiquitous assumption that the Wikileaks DNC and Podesta email disclosures helped usher in the Trump presidency in 2016. For example, in 2019 the celebrated Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan (whose 2014 profile of Assange had done much to diminish the latter’s credibility among the LRB-reading British middle-classes) singled out the 2016 DC leaks as a ‘dark and besmirching affair’ irremediably damaging to Assange’s reputation.

However, as he repeatedly made clear in 2017, as the year before, Assange published authentic documents in the public interest, and in fact was not alone in doing so: the evidence of corruption in the DNC was immediately taken up by the international media as newsworthy. The effects of journalistic transparency are contingent and independent of intentions, and truth-disclosures alone don’t determine, even if they influence, political or other outcomes. The accusations against Assange on this count occlude an assumption made meaningful only with hindsight: if Clinton had won the 2016 election, no-one – including O’Hagan – would have thought to accuse Assange of deliberate journalistic malpractice. By 2016 Assange had already made enemies on all sides, just because he was willing to publish facts in the public interest. Undergirding these accusations is such commentators’ professed standards of the moral defence of liberty sustaining the very possibility of open discourse, freedom from censorship, and their own would-be enlightened cultural practice

You don’t have to like or even respect Assange, or agree with everything he has said or done, to know that these same values are just what is at stake in his persecution, and that he deserves a proper defence for their sake.

The Trump presidency went on to expose another fundamental contradiction. No liberal Australian commentator hesitated to condemn Trump’s documented sexism, his false accusations in the ‘birther’ controversy, his inflammatory speech prior to and during the BLM movement actions, his hypocritical appeal to Christian values in his heavy-handed treatment of peaceful protest, his ongoing indirect exoneration of American white supremacy, his deception in addressing taxation disclosures, his arbitrary evasion of impeachment, his abject mishandling of the corona-virus, including his wilful manipulation in lying to a vulnerable population in order to sustain a false image of his own authority, resulting in the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged Americans, or his catalytic role in the January 6th assault on the Capitol.

But when it comes to a systematic propaganda and disinformation campaign to discredit the personal and professional integrity of Assange, mainstream opinion has been mute. This failure extends to the majority of government itself. Morrison’s and Payne’s disingenuousness here has been of a high, and highly offensive, order. It’s offensive because instead of defending the rights of an Australian citizen with seriousness and sincerity, and thereby demonstrate the maturity, independence and sovereignty of our political and diplomatic institutions, both sides of politics in Australia have for four years chosen instead to allow a proven liar, sexist, sociopath and apologist for white supremacy, to determine the appropriate self-representation of a sovereign people and its government.

That the Senate in November 2020 passed a motion acknowledging Assange’s case is little more than noting damage long after the event. (No corporate media reported it, including the ABC.) It might be churlish to say that Anthony Albanese’s recently-voiced opposition to Assange’s extradition has come too late – which it has. Both sides of politics have been complicit with Trump, where they might have held firm to principle instead. The government’s wilful dismissal of those among its people it deems an impediment to geopolitical good favour (witness also the recent tension with New Zealand over national terror suspects stripped of their citizenship),  ironically confirms that it remains the accomplice of the US in injustice and international crime. It does so now most balefully by sacrificing not another Vietnamese farmer, Iraqi civilian, or Afghan villager, but one of the most significant Australians of recent decades – one who will be remembered as one of the foundational architects of digital transparency in the Information Age.

In the eighteenth-century Voltaire and Diderot, those architects of the opening of civil society to truth as the primary social value, also did jail time – but for them it lasted under a year, rather than a decade. They helped usher in an age of press freedom and self-determination we now claim as ours, but insincerely, in the shallow terms of lip-service by which contemporary liberal democracy is increasingly kissing away its pith and core. Australia’s comparative silence of the last four years around the persecution of Assange only betrays the kind of selective and self-interested morality its own liberal defenders of free speech and the rule of law deplore in flailing democracies or authoritarian states like Hungary, China or Russia.

The presiding Australian government, with those rendered morally enfeebled under its rule, will be remembered only for having betrayed Assange in his, and perhaps the nation’s, hour of most critical reckoning. Of course, Assange himself and Wikileaks are also convention-breaking and transgressive: in recent time, no other institutional or civil body has been able to rise to the challenge of speaking truth to power as effectively as Wikileaks has. However contested, that achievement has permanently superseded the standards of corporate journalism as it has been constituted especially since 9/11, when state security began to take precedence over the disclosure of facts concerning the mechanisms of corporate, military and transnational powers exercised with respect to globalising neoliberal interests.

Given these interests, Assange has unsurprisingly been framed as the aberrant party – this, despite an initial flurry of establishment endorsements, including the Sydney Peace Prize, exactly a decade ago, for his ‘exceptional courage and initiative in pursuit of human rights.’ Since then, the stages of Assange’s persecution have been legitimated only by virtue of a propaganda campaign that successfully brought much of liberal-democratic opinion under its sway: it took up to a decade to pull off, but it indisputably succeeded. And we know this is true because it takes no hard looking to see who and what has been the aberrant party all along, and by extension who has fallen foul of its manipulations: the US security and military establishment that has systematically committed and concealed war-crimes, and have yet to answer for them.

It’s for this miscarriage of justice, and not his own, that Assange is paying the price. Even if he is released in the coming time, by virtue of a dismissal of the extradition request by the British high court, or by an unlikely Biden pardon, it will be too late for those who’ve remained indifferently silent to be exonerated. Given the continuing fact of Assange’s incarceration, that failure of exoneration is possibly the best that the Australian polity can hope for. If so, it will be among the most aberrant episodes of an often-troubled national history.


Image: a still from the Baghdad Air Strike video that became known as ‘Collateral murder’

Martin Kovan

Martin Kovan is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His short and long-form essays, articles, fiction, poetry, and interviews, have been regularly published in Australia, and in the US, UK, France, Hong Kong, India, and Czech Republic. His philosophical monograph A Buddhist Theory of Killing: a philosophical exposition was published by Springer in 2022.

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