There have been lots of jokes about Julian Assange’s bedraggled appearance as he was arrested by the not-so-secret police in London last week; some memes compared him to a garden gnome, others to Uncle Albert in Only Fools And Horses. For me, however, the scene brought back memories of Saddam Hussein emerging from his spider hole in Operation Red Dawn after nine months as a fugitive from justice in 2003.
Assange wasn’t stuck in a bunker in a farm compound in Iraq; he was a guest in the Ecuadorian Embassy a few streets away from Harrods. His dishevelment had more to do with his questionable personal hygiene than his living conditions. But like Saddam, he was a once-feted figure brought down by a thirst for power and hubris.
Unlike Saddam, whose arrest was almost universally celebrated, Assange still has supporters; despite his myriad betrayals and his ability to antagonise everyone, from the celebrities who paid his bail to the diplomats who offered him sanctuary, there are those who still regard him as a hero. In both hard-left and libertarian right circles, he has advocates willing to downplay the accusations of sexual assault he has spent seven years evading, as they defend him as a champion of freedom of speech.
Indeed, in the last few days, Assange has served as a useful barometer for a certain kind of misogyny. If your immediate response to his capture was to refer to him as “a political refugee protected by international law” – à la John Pilger – or to quote Orwell as saying: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” then you are most likely a brocialist happy to throw women under a bus in pursuit of your own agenda.
The list of those defending Assange includes the usual suspects: Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway, Tommy Sheridan, Diane Abbott, as well a few wild cards, such as Pamela Anderson, who called the UK “America’s bitch”.
For those on the hard left, the agenda involves a hatred for Tony Blair so all-consuming it allows them to lionise Assange for exposing atrocities committed during the Iraq war, while ignoring the part he is thought to have played in the election of Donald Trump.
In the early days, perhaps, WikiLeaks was a noble venture and Assange a wielder of the sword of truth. In 2010, the organisation exposed horrific war crimes and the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Back then, it promised to usher in a new era of transparency and digital democratisation where ordinary citizens could hold governments to account.
But it didn’t take long for its core values to become warped. There was an increasing recklessness about the enterprise – a determination to place information in the public domain regardless of the damage that might be inflicted on innocent individuals.
It was this recklessness that destroyed his relationship with the Guardian; Assange opposed its decision to redact the names of Afghans who informed on the Taleban, along with those of Chinese dissidents. WikiLeaks also outed gays in Saudi Arabia and took no responsibility for the possible consequences.
As Assange, always self-absorbed, came to see himself as a Messiah figure, he became less of a cyber warrior and more of a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist. In 2016, WikiLeaks boosted Trump’s electoral prospects by publishing emails sent from or received by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. It encouraged Russia-initiated smear campaigns on the deterioration in Clinton’s health and the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
And there had long been rumours of Assange’s questionable attitude towards women. There was talk about his many “conquests”. In Andrew O’Hagan’s epic London Review of Books piece about failing to ghost his autobiography, he describes him ogling an underage girl.
The allegations made against Assange by the two Swedish women – which include non-consensual intercourse without a condom and non-consensual intercourse while the complainant was sleeping – turned some supporters into rape apologists. When Galloway argued “not everyone needs to be asked prior to every insertion”, he legitimised a culture of sexual entitlement.
As for the perception of Assange as a seeker of truth and justice, he has spent most of his years in the Ecuadorian Embassy being disingenuous about the nature of his “incarceration”.
This compulsion to myth-make has spread to his supporters. In his piece on the arrest, Pilger refers to Assange being “trapped” in the embassy. Others have spoken of the “secret police” – actually officers from the Met. Weirdly, they have not been asking the key question, which is why the US authorities were told in advance of his arrest and the Swedish authorities were not.
Most insidious has been the suggestion – peddled, perhaps unwittingly, by Abbott – that the rape charges in Sweden have been dropped. It is true that the statute of limitations has run out on all but one of them, but the remaining charge could, and should, be reactivated at the behest of the complainant.
None of this is to say Assange should be extradited to the US. He is not a likeable man, but such matters should not be judged on personality or even motive. And though the current US indictment relates to offering to assist Chelsea Manning to hack into Department of Defense computers, future court action must have the potential to undermine the freedom of the press. It is also easy to see how the Swedish allegations could be exploited as a means to ease his extradition to the US.
For some Labour devotees, however, the apparent sidelining of the sexual allegations by Corbyn and Abbott has proved too much to bear. Long-standing member Cat Headley announced she was quitting Labour with the words: “I cannot stay while it uncritically defends Assange (whatever rights/wrongs of extradition may be). It is an insult to victims of sexual violence. The last straw after the disgrace of anti-Semitism, the response to Salisbury & Brexit prevarications.”
There has been consternation too within the parliamentary party. Labour backbenchers, including Diana Johnson, Stephen Kinnock, Stephanie Peacock and Stella Creasy, signed an open letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid seeking assurances that every assistance would be offered to Sweden should it make an extradition request.
In the end though, as so often, it was Emily Thornberry who nailed it. “Why weren’t the Swedish authorities told in advance of Assange’s ejection from the Ecuadorian Embassy as the US clearly was? Our priority should be the alleged two victims of sexual violence in Sweden and not a ruse to get him extradited to the US as a whistleblower,” she wrote.
It is possible to support Assange’s extradition to Sweden while opposing his extradition to the US; just as it ought to be possible to oppose his extradition to the US without framing him as a great libertarian saviour.