WikiLeaks is a rare truth-teller. Smearing Julian Assange is shameful

WikiLeaks is a rare example of a newsgathering organisation that exposes the truth. Julian Assange is by no means alone.

Last December, I stood with supporters of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the bitter cold outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Candles were lit; the faces were young and old and from all over the world. They were there to demonstrate their human solidarity with someone whose guts they admired. They were in no doubt about the importance of what Assange had revealed and achieved, and the grave dangers he now faced. Absent entirely were the lies, spite, jealousy, opportunism and pathetic animus of a few who claim the right to guard the limits of informed public debate.

These public displays of warmth for Assange are common and seldom reported. Several thousand people packed Sydney Town Hall, with hundreds spilling into the street. In New York recently, Assange was given the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award. In the audience was Daniel Ellsberg, who risked all to leak the truth about the barbarism of the Vietnam war.

Like Jemima Khan, the investigative journalist Phillip Knightley, the acclaimed film director Ken Loach and others lost bail money in standing up for Assange. “The US is out to crush someone who has revealed its dirty secrets,” Loach wrote to me. “Extradition via Sweden is more than likely . . . is it difficult to choose whom to support?”

No, it is not difficult.

In the NS last week, Jemima Khan ended her support for an epic struggle for justice, truth and freedom with an article on Wiki­Leaks’s founder. To Khan, the Ellsbergs and Yoko Onos, the Loaches and Knightleys, and the countless people they represent, have all been duped. We are all “blinkered”. We are all mindlessly “devoted”. We are all “cultists”. In the final words of her j’accuse, she describes Assange as “an Australian L Ron Hubbard”. She must have known this would make a gratuitous headline, as indeed it did across the press in Australia.

I respect Jemima Khan for backing humanitarian causes, such as the Palestinians. She supports the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, of which I am a judge, and my own film-making. But her attack on Assange is specious and plays to a familiar gallery whose courage is tweeted from a smartphone.

Khan complains that Assange refused to appear in the film about WikiLeaks by the American director Alex Gibney, which she “executive produced”. Assange knew the film would be neither “nuanced” nor “fair” and “represent the truth”, as Khan wrote, and that its very title, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, was a gift to the fabricators of a bogus criminal indictment that could doom him to one of America’s hellholes. Having interviewed axe-grinders and turncoats, Gibney abuses Assange as paranoid. DreamWorks is also making a film about the “paranoid” Assange. Oscars all round.

The sum of Khan’s and Gibney’s attacks is that Ecuador granted him asylum without evidence. The evidence is voluminous. Assange has been declared an official “enemy” of a torturing, assassinating, rapacious state. This is clear in official files, obtained under Freedom of Information, that betray Washington’s “unprecedented” pursuit of him, together with the Australian government’s abandonment of its citizen: a legal basis for granting asylum.

Khan refers to a “long list” of Assange’s “alienated and disaffected allies”. Almost none was ever an ally. What is striking about most of these “allies” and Assange’s haters is that they exhibit the very symptoms of arrested development they attribute to a man whose resilience and good humour under extreme pressure are evident to those he trusts.

Another on the “long list” is the lawyer Mark Stephens, who charged him almost half a million pounds in fees and costs. This bill was paid from an advance on a book whose unauthorised manuscript was published by another “ally” without Assange’s knowledge or permission. When Assange moved his legal defence to Gareth Peirce, Britain’s leading human rights lawyer, he found a true ally. Khan makes no mention of the damning, irrefutable evidence that Peirce presented to the Australian government, warning how the US deliberately “synchronised” its extradition demands with pending cases and that her client faced a grave miscarriage of justice and personal danger. Peirce told the Australian consul in London in person that she had known few cases as shocking as this.

It is a red herring whether Britain or Sweden holds the greatest danger of delivering Assange to the US. The Swedes have refused all requests for guarantees that he will not be despatched under a secret arrangement with Washington; and it is the political executive in Stockholm, with its close ties to the extreme right in America, not the courts, that will make this decision.

Khan is rightly concerned about a “resolution” of the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. Putting aside the tissue of falsehoods demonstrated in the evidence in this case, both women had consensual sex with Assange and neither claimed otherwise; and the Stockholm prosecutor Eva Finne all but dismissed the case.

As Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote in the Guardian in August 2012, “. . . the allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction . . .

“The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will . . . [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step to their investigation? What are they afraid of?”

Editor's note: The full title of the film about Wikileaks "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" has now been included in this article.

Julian Assange. Photo: Zed Nelson/INSTITUTE

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Show Hide image

Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.