The WikiLeaks founder spoke to audiences in Melbourne and Auckland on Sunday night via video-link from his Ecuador embassy redoubt in London – this time without power drills and Kim Dotcom.
The last time Julian Assange was beamed in to a public event in New Zealand, the country was screaming slack-jawed down the final furlong of the 2014 election. Then, the WikiLeaks founder cut a wearied figure – he looked tired, dishevelled, not altogether well, none of which was helped much by the constant whirring and drilling noises in the background, caused, he explained to a packed Auckland Town Hall, by some mysterious “tunnelling” under his home in the Ecuadorean embassy, London.
Last night, Assange was virtually suspended above an Auckland crowd again. This time there was no Glenn Greenwald, no Edward Snowden, and no Kim Dotcom. There were no audible power tools drowning out the feed from his Knightsbridge refuge, either. And Assange, projected via the miracle of the internet on to a screen at AUT, seemed altogether chipper, despite the fact that, as he acknowledged, an election in Ecuador, where first round results hang in the balance, could yet get him booted from his west London digs.
Presented by ThinkInc, an Australian outfit touring the rock stars of “intellectual discourse” (sometimes at rock star prices, too: options for the Ben Goldacre event in Auckland last September ranged from $89 to $299; last night’s virtual audience with Assange was a more modest $29), the Auckland event began with an intro reel promoting ThinkInc events – “Time travel is absolutely possible,” enthused a forthcoming big thinker. Next, the 150 or so of us in the AUT lecture were transported to Melbourne, where host Chas Licciardello, a comedian of Chaser fame, bounced us in turn over to Assange in London, or at least to a tiny pocket of Ecuador in London, if you prefer. It’s live, Jim, but not as we know it.
Things were looking grim about 20 minutes in, as Licciardello drifted from footage of Assange dancing somewhere in Scandinavia as if he were in that Spike Jonze video to an extended disquisition on the Ecuador Embassy cat. Were there going to be any questions about the Swedish sexual assault allegations? The Democratic National Convention emails? The Russian connection? The Trump?
All of that terrain did get covered in the following 80ish minutes, even if Assange was rarely challenged on his responses. “Fair enough,” was Licciardello’s usual response, including, disappointingly to Assange’s chiding, “I don’t know why you mention Sweden – it’s buying into the narrative.” That seemed a strange thing to say, given that the very reason Assange is holed up in the embassy is because he was granted political asylum after the British Supreme Court threw out an appeal against extradition to Sweden. He and his supporters insist that the Swedish allegations are not what matters, but the risk of subsequent deportation to the United States.
A fundamentalist among transparency warriors, Assange reiterated his disdain for media who take it upon themselves to withhold leaked material. The “supreme arrogance of journalists”, the “jumped up journalists or editors”, who “take information out of human history” with their redactions and cherry-picking amounts to, he said, “something close to a crime against humanity”.
He saved his biggest grin for Hillary Clinton, explaining that he had been sent a rare copy of the pulped “Madam President” coverlined edition of Newsweek. “She is the candidate that lost to Donald Trump,” he chortled, to a ripple of applause in the hall, adding for good measure: “Lost! To Donald Trump!”
She did, he’s right about that, but her failure was in part fomented by a certain leak of emails from a certain party by a certain website, all of which led the same Donald Trump to upgrade his assessment of Assange’s site from “disgraceful” to “I love WikiLeaks!”
What did Assange have to say about that? How could he be so sure, asked a punter in Melbourne, that the materials they published didn’t emanate from Russia?
“We’ve stated clearly, reluctantly, that the source for our materials, different publications during the election period, is not a state – not Russia, not China, not Israel. Your question asks me, basically, to provide more details about our source, the communications, what we know about and what we don’t know about. And that of course gives greater identity to who are sources are, and we’re not going to do it.”
The US intelligence claims that WikiLeaks was fed by Russia are baseless, he added. “They don’t know how we got our different publications. They don’t know when, they don’t know how … They don’t have insight into the interactions between WikiLeaks and their sources. They claim they’ve seen some kind of pattern associated with Russia in some way … But, of course, Russia, China, Israel have hacked the major US political parties … That’s normal … The US government admits that it can’t find a connection between the hacks and WikiLeaks publications.”
(Earlier in the piece he’d denounced the broader “neo-McCarthyite hysteria in relation to Russia”.)
As to Trump’s victory, Assange argued the Democrats had erred by overdoing their appeal to identity; when you “constantly talk about racial identity”, he said, “the white majority starts to think about itself as a racial identity”.
Assange also offered a variation on the “truthiness” theory. “Donald Trump lies all the time. All the time. But it’s a particular kind of lie. He lies about facts. Constantly, he lies about fact. But does he emotionally lie? That’s a different question. I think Donald Trump’s lack of an emotional filter means that he’s perceived as being emotionally honest, and an emotional honesty, people think or feel, is more important than factual honesty.” Clinton, by contrast, “was much more honest on the facts, but emotionally I think she was considerably more dishonest.”
Of the leaks emerging in the US that he has criticised as a “destabilising” campaign by the intelligence agencies, Assange said they were different to WikiLeaks’ efforts as they were briefed by people with a dog in the race, rather than being unvarnished documents.
One other interesting bit. The initiative by Facebook and Google to counter “fake news” in the French election had Assange warning about the precedent for meddling by the digital behemoths. The approach, he argued, was really about trying to avoid a Trump sequel, and prevent far-right candidate Marine Le Pen from taking the presidency. It involved, he pointed out, “creating the initial infrastructure and rhetorical justification for controlling a subjective narrative”.
And I put you wrong a little on Kim Dotcom’s absence – the embattled Mega-human, ahead of his setback today in the High Court, made an appearance right at the finish of last night’s event, having sent via Licciardello a note of solidarity to Assange, who noted they and Snowden share a US prosecutor. Dotcom’s message, as best I can recollect, was a suggestion that they form a new political party: “You can lead it and I’ll pay for it!” Given events of the last few years, such a fanciful absurdity seems pretty much a nailed-on certainty.
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