They shuffled in, found their seats, settled in as best they could. Many had travelled a long way to be a part of this, but what exactly was this? A ‘conversation’ with someone who, according to our guide “literally needed no introduction” and yet was an elusive outsider, disconcertingly challenging conventional rules of the game. And ‘rules’ is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
So it was, at lunchtime on Wednesday 11 October 2017, and with some geographical irony, several hundred legal eagles from around the world packed into a Sydney theatre. They were there to watch an Australian, Julian Assange, be cross-examined from his refuge of more than 5 years at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
He was, despite, or because of, his nonconformity , one of the major drawcards to the International Bar Association (IBA) 2017 annual conference that has seen more than 4,000 lawyers descend on Sydney this week. As recently as April 2017, the US Attorney General reconfirmed that Assange’s arrest remains a “priority”.
The founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, subject of a seven year United States Grand Jury investigation, and recently victorious in his battle with Swedish authorities over a rape charge, suddenly appeared on the big, green screen.
A weary-looking Assange (it was around 3am in London and he hadn’t been to bed) fielded questions by video link from IBA Executive Director, Mark Ellis, and the audience at the Pyrmont Theatre in the International Convention Centre.
This is an edited extract of his ‘testimony’ about everything from claims that Russia was the source of documents released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 US election campaign to his unflattering views of the media, the Swedish legal system, WikiLeaks’ ‘perfect’ fact checking, and the Australian government.
On WikiLeaks’ decision to publish thousands of emails just before the 2016 US election, which Hillary Clinton said contributed significantly to her defeat, but caused Donald Trump to tweet: ‘I love WikiLeaks’.
WikiLeaks is committed to being the most aggressive publisher in the world, the strongest defender of press freedom. We’ve never been accused of censoring one of its sources. We‘re not in the business of censoring information. If we get information before an election we will do everything possible to publish it at the moment where the public is most interested in it, which is before the election. It would be a betrayal of our role before the public to suppress information for the benefit of one candidate or another.
We looked at the polling like everyone else did and essentially the whole establishment in the US, with the exception of perhaps Fox News, was behind Hillary Clinton and our view was the publications wouldn’t make a significant difference. They might of course discolour her…Even if we had known Trump would be elected it wouldn’t have changed. You have principles, you have to live by them. I disagree with the analysis, the hysteria about the US President and frankly the power of presidents in general.
On a perceived dislike of Hillary Clinton.
I think that is common to about 50% of the American population and probably the majority of the world’s population. I don’t know the woman. I’m not in high school, I don’t have dislikes of people I haven’t met. It’s more I don’t like their policies…
On evidence that leaks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were sourced from Russian intelligence.
Our source is not a member of any state. There has been an intentional conflation of a variety of publications and other material that appeared in other US publications and our publication … The formal position of US intelligence [agencies] is that they believe – one organisation with high confidence, the other slightly less – that Russian actors hacked the DNC and through some circuitous chain of intermediaries that information was given to us – that’s what they claim. Of the emails that we published I am confident our sources will never be shown to be [Russian military or other state agents].
On whether WikiLeaks would publish information it knew came from Russian military intelligence, or from a particular state.
I don’t know – we haven’t been in that position. It’s an interesting hypothetical question. I’ve thought about it in a different way; what if a large state, say China, gave us information to publish about Taiwan, a much smaller state, would we have a problem with that? Maybe. We don’t have a rule about it. We’d have to think about it, what that rule is. It’s not like if we don’t publish it, it disappears. When we publish it gets properly assessed and analysed. If we don’t publish it, it appears somewhere else. It’s not like we’re contributing to the problem; we’re contributing to understanding what the information actually is.
On journalism and journalists.
I would say in the big Western countries something like 2% of journalists are credible in terms of accuracy. I’m sure everyone in the audience who’s found themselves being reported in the press will understand exactly. It’s quite an interesting syndrome: you’re involved in something, you see [it] reported in the press and it’s nothing like that. It’s largely fabricated, sometimes completely fabricated. What people then do, and I catch myself falling into this, is we then look at a story we don’t have direct knowledge of its truthfulness because we are not direct participants and we assume it’s accurate. But no, that dog food is made exactly the same way as the stuff that you saw and understood how bad the process was.
We see that all the time, the corrosive effects of selective news reporting, complete fabrications, hype, hysteria. I think the press is in general a very toxic mix and extremely corrosive. When it does its job right – and it does sometimes as a result of a few good journalists – then it’s a remarkable thing. The gap between its potential achievements and its actual achievements is so immense you really have to question if the world would be better without it. I don’t think alternative media is any better, it’s frequently worse.
On Swedish legal system (Sweden has recently dropped arrest warrant for JA).
Sweden would not guarantee I would not be extradited onto the US. I have a complete lack of faith in Sweden’s judicial system’s ability and more broadly as a political society to fairly carry out a hearing in relation to US extradition. My experience in Sweden made me very concerned about its resilience as a judicial system. My philosophical takeaway from that experience and others is that every state has a level at which its judicial system breaks down, where [because of] the political nature of the case or the opponents of the accused, they have a level where they break down. Every country has it, there’s no exception… The only question really is where is that level and where are you as a defendant on that level.
On suggestion he avoided a proper legal process.
Absolutely not. Sweden avoided a legal process and engaged in an illegal legal process… Sweden was formally condemned by the UN [Working Group on Arbitrary Detention]… We won and now we’re suing for damages.
On how WikiLeaks decides what information is in the public interest.
My view is that there is a well-established tradition and it’s about newsworthiness when we’re talking about publication, and newsworthiness is pretty much ‘of interest to the public’ not ‘of public interest’. We’re interested in material that is newsworthy in the fast news sense, but also over a long period of time, archive –and that can include information that’s completely unnewsworthy in isolation but adds to the rich context of something that is being published … Otherwise there’s a selection criteria and inevitably psychological, cultural biases and fears about reputational management would enter into that selection process.
On support from the Australian government and diplomatic representation he’s received.
I wasn’t aware there was any. Every so often they call up and ask, ‘Do you want consular support?’ and we say what are you offering and they don’t say anything.
When Rudd was Foreign Minister they once forwarded us a letter they had received from Sweden and they gave me a pen and pencil when I was in prison. That was the sum total of the consular/diplomatic support from the Australian government and since then there has been none at all.
On WikiLeaks focusing more on Asia, especially India (a question asked by an Indian lawyer in the audience).
It’s a question of expansion. When we get such information we publish it.
What does an organisation need to expand? We need to not be distracted by a number of different serious legal cases and it needs to expand its capital. If you know of Indians who could form some kind of intellectual nucleus for WikiLeaks India I’d be interested to hear that.
On WikiLeaks’ confidence that what it publishes is accurate.
We’ve become the best forensic analysers of digital information. At least as far as any organisation in public. Interesting question whether intelligence agencies exceed our capacities, probably not.
So far, [we have] 11 million documents published. Now to be fair sometimes a million documents from the same source, but so far we’ve never misdescribed a document we’ve published, we’ve never mis-authenticated anything we’ve published. I think that’s an enviable record. In some way it’s a bit burdensome and in some ways I wish we didn’t have that record. There’s a phrase ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’. We have perfect and because we have perfect and to lose perfect would in some sense be a reputational calamity, we have to reduce volume a little bit to keep perfect.
On media he thinks are doing a good job (apart from WikiLeaks).
C-SPAN is good; they’re a primary source publisher like we are a primary source publisher.
There are fine journalists working across all major mainstream media outlets, it’s just that they’re a minority. Politico Europe has just started and it’s very interesting. Politco EU does some fine work especially in the European context. It’s taken some of the good traditions which are in rapid decay from the US print press and transported it to Europe. The Intercept does some good things. Some of the German press, sometimes the French press.
On whether, in response to a question from a ‘humble’ English lawyer, he has any respect for the rule of law, and has come to terms with the fact that, in absence of coming out from the Ecuadorian Embassy voluntarily, he may end up dying there.
Is this a British twat? You sound like it; where are you from? I’m curious because I’ve developed an understanding of London culture, if you can call it that… you are a member of the state which has been acting unlawfully in relation to me addressing my rights… I don’t know exactly how you form part of it culturally or whatever. But that’s an example of the sort of garbage I get, I face in this town.
On Donald Trump’s use of social media to subvert the mainstream media control of the narrative.
In general, yes, it’s an extremely positive thing. In the particular way Donald Trump uses it, well he’s a very unusual psychological character, very, very unusual. Because he lies like that constantly, gargantuan lies. So, it’s not a positive, every time a lie is communicated it’s very rarely a positive, it’s a type of intellectual pollution in the library of mankind. On the other hand, he also tells the truth like that in situations where normally people would not tell the truth. And the result of the second part is that very many interesting things are revealed about the structure of US power. And the result of the first part is all sorts of dangerous distortions enter into our perception of reality, or some people’s perception of reality.
We might, as the chief questioner, Mark Ellis said, have let this inquisition go on for another hour, but time was up. Assange seemed even more weary from lack of sleep, years of confinement or yet again beating his drum – it was hard to tell from afar.