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

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Understanding anxiety – my inside view of a debilitating disorder and how to control it

Following a number of recent anxiety attacks, I set out to learn why this happens to me.

As I stepped out of the office one evening after a routine day at work, I found myself glued to the floor. Legs bolted, knees quivering, heart racing – I was cemented into the ground by something paralysing.

I had to work out what was happening, and fast. Was a looming deadline holding me back from leaving? Was an unread message on my phone stopping me in my tracks? Perhaps fatigue had set me on edge. Or that passerby with an unsettling stare caught me off-guard. Maybe it was something more surreal; maybe a sense of dread had taken over, as I started to perceive each onlooker as a potential source of fear. Whether it was all of those things or none of those things, I eventually realised that the sticky situation I had found myself in was the onset of an anxiety attack.

Anxiety is a disorder of varying forms. People may be affected by generalised anxiety disorder – characterised by excessive worrying (often without an identifiable trigger), a specific phobia or panic disorder, in which terror can overwhelm a person without warning. The sufferer experiences physical and mental symptoms of distress that include a feeling of restlessness, shortness of breath, and agitation, exacerbated by the uncontrollable spiralling of their thoughts, which can often be self-deprecating and debilitating.

I had been in this situation before. The rising tension makes for an overwhelming and often paranoid experience, but my awareness of the fact that I was indeed having an anxiety attack was enough to know that this feeling wouldn’t persist for an indefinite amount of time; it would eventually pass, as all anxiety attacks do.

After roughly half an hour of concentrated breathing, conscious changes in thought patterns and eventually moving to a quieter spot, I had managed to calm down.

Though I had managed my anxiety attacks before via similar means, I was curious to know – what exactly was happening during my attacks? What can specifically be done while they’re happening? And could the panic and jitters of anxiety ever be beneficial?

The biology of an anxiety attack

The biological basis of an anxiety attack is tied to the actions of the body’s autonomic nervous system – a division of our nervous system that, without conscious control, regulates our bodily organs and systems.

When stimulated, the autonomic nervous system kicks into gear, causing the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. And that’s when things flare up.

Pulses of adrenaline are produced in response to a stimulus  one that causes the body to kick into a defensive fight-or-flight mode. With anxiety, these stressful stimuli include excessive thoughts, heightened worries, trauma triggers and objects posing as threats. Even subconscious phenomena have been proposed as provokers; it is known that sufferers may wake up from a night’s sleep in a bout of panic. The stimuli add to the existing level of distress, making a person’s breath shallower, often inducing profuse sweating, and initiating a dark foreboding, all in the space of a moment.

Combating anxiety

According to the NHS, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to manage the distressing symptoms of an attack. Staying in a fixed spot, deep breathing and actively issuing a challenge in your mind to the fears on which you may be fixating are crucial things to do in the immediate stages. I wasn’t sure whether in my latest case I had done this instinctively or out of habit from past struggles. Either way, the methods were relieving.

The end of an attack is reached through an eventual depletion of adrenaline, which tells the body that it no longer needs to be on high alert. It brings with it tiredness but a welcome passing of the crisis. However, without a longer-term, pragmatic approach to tackling the disorder, it’s almost certain that an individual will face another intense period of anxiousness. So how should anxiety sufferers manage the issue over a longer period of time?

This is where therapy can be an extremely useful form of intervention. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy for the disorder, with research demonstrating its effectiveness in treating the closely related disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. CBT focuses on a reconfiguring of thought patterns, shifting perceptions and a redefining of negative sources of fear.

Recently, I spoke to David Potts, a CBT therapist, to discuss how therapy can be of benefit. He said: “In therapy we'd work on specifics. It would involve telling yourself what the triggers are. Often people have very negative views about what's happening to them [during an attack]; they'll think I'm having a heart attack or I'm going to die and those kinds of thoughts form a vicious cycle and the panic gets worse.”

According to Potts, being attuned to the occurrence of an anxiety attack is essential in taking active steps to overcome it. It can facilitate the process of calming down, allowing the person in the midst of an attack to separate the thoughts in their mind from the reality of a particular situation.

Therapy can also offer an individualised approach to understanding a person’s anxiety. Potts told me: “Often, from a therapy perspective, we are considering what’s happening to them [the patient] in their lives that lead them to be more anxious than other people. It could include things they’ve experienced in childhood, it could be ways that families are, or it could involve ways that they’ve learnt to manage different emotions.”

Beyond therapy, medication is available to aid anxiety. Appropriate to a disorder that can affect people in various ways, there are different types of medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of medication. SSRIs are antidepressants that seek to increase levels of serotonin in our brains – a neurotransmitter thought to be central to the maintenance of mood. Other drugs available (in case of side effects from SSRIs) include serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), pregabalin and benzodiazepines. Though alleviating, medication is something that should supplement forms of therapy, as the pills themselves won’t solve the social triggers and problems that cause anxiety.

As people have increasingly moved towards holistic lifestyles, emphasis on exercise and dietary intake has been elevated. Eating healthier has been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety, while exercise has been proven to reduce levels of stress in the long run. Reduced stress equates to a reduced risk of an anxiety attack.

Changes to the brain from exercise have been documented too. Researchers at Princeton University found that physical exercise generates excitable new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in emotional responses. Though the excitability of the neurons would generally be unfavourable (priming the brain for anxiety), researchers found that the impact of exercise was one which had a calming effect, as the exercise was able to switch off the newly-generated, excitable neurons at times when they weren’t required.

When just a ten-minute walk has been shown to offer benefit, there seems to be very little to oppose the implementation of exercise as a form of therapy for anxiety.

Living with anxiety

Perhaps surprisingly, anxiety can be harnessed as a tool of empowerment for some. When it occurs at a smaller scale, it can serve as an informative warning against stressors, and help an individual focus and pinpoint their attention.

As a sufferer, acknowledgement of anxiety seems to be the key to unlocking the resources that can dull its impact. With carefully paid attention, responsibility and mindfulness, the waves of anxiety threatening to drench you can be reduced to smaller, more manageable ebbs and flows.