To get Julian Assange to face the Swedish allegations, America should back off

If the US promises not to extradite him from Sweden, Julian Assange may be able to put an end to the saga

For 15 days now, Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The WikiLeaks founder, whose 41st birthday is today, is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations and has requested political asylum. Assange fears he will be held incommunicado in Sweden and ultimately handed over to authorities in the United States, who have confirmed they are continuing to investigate WikiLeaks for publishing thousands of classified government documents in 2010.

This latest bizarre episode in the Assange saga has sparked fiery arguments between supporters and critics of the divisive WikiLeaks frontman. Some have dismissed Assange’s fears as paranoia and accused him of attempting to dodge justice by seeking refuge in the embassy. Others have likened Assange’s plight to that of dissidents in countries like China, arguing that he is right to seek asylum given that there are continued calls for his extradition in America, where the vice-president has branded him a high-tech terrorist.

But what the supporters and critics do not seem to realise is that most of them share a common ground. Very few of Assange’s opponents, aside from a handful of rabid right-wing commentators, believe WikiLeaks should be prosecuted for its involvement in publishing classified documents. Even former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who has savaged Assange on several occasions, has said he would back WikiLeaks if a prosecution were to go ahead.

So the solution here seems obvious. Given that at the core of Assange’s asylum application are his fears that the US Department of Justice would like to lock him up, people on all sides of the debate should be calling for the Obama administration to give an assurance that it will not try to extradite Assange for his publishing work. Why? Because if the US government stopped pursuing Assange, he would go to Sweden. Then the prosecutors there could question him face-to-face, lodge formal charges if there is a case to be heard in court, take the thing to trial and let the judicial process run its course.

Assange has concerns that he will not get a fair trial in Sweden, in part due to what his legal team have argued were prejudicial comments made by the country’s prime minister about the case. But at least without fears of a US extradition hanging over his head, once the Swedish case was in motion Assange would have little else to worry about. Equally important, the women who made the allegations against him would get their chance to be heard. The conclusion, whatever the outcome, would bring closure to this long-drawn out affair which has now become nothing short of a complete fiasco.

It is worth recalling that when Assange was first arrested in London over the sexual assault allegations in December 2010, the US government was pleased. Then-defence secretary Robert Gates, visiting Afghanistan at the time, was asked for his reaction. He smirked and said: "sounds good to me." Gates’s off-the-cuff comment spoke volumes about how senior officials in the Obama administration had very little interest in the particulars of the Swedish case. There was a real sense at the time that they just wanted Assange to disappear, and that has not changed.

To top officials in the White House, Assange is undoubtedly seen as a threat, an agitator, a dangerous opponent they would like to see neutralised. But if the Obama administration, which has pursued a uniquely aggressive anti-whistleblower policy, was actually to launch a formal prosecution against Assange in a bid to extradite him, there would be counter-productive consequences. It would radicalise swathes of young people and be condemned by newspapers and NGOs around the world as an outrageous attack on press freedom. It would damage America’s standing in the world and fundamentally undermine Obama’s personal legacy as a president.

Let us not forget that Assange has helped expose war crimes, breaches of international law, and other questionable actions on an unparalleled scale. Obama has already lost a great deal of support due to his secret kill list, his out-of-control drone programme, and his failure to close prison camp Guantanamo Bay. An unjust prosecution against Assange would symbolise the political death knell of Obama – the man who, just four years ago, galvanised millions with his promises of hope and change.

Right now, Assange is in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy, sleeping on what one man who visited him said was an inflatable mattress. His situation currently is not far from a kind of imprisonment, and all because he fears being handed over to America. Whether or not US authorities are foolish enough to actually attempt to prosecute Assange at some point down the line, they will be happy to see him face this crisis. In a sense, by refusing to rule out an extradition attempt they are punishing him by proxy.

Almost 7000 people have signed a petition calling for Ecuador to accept Assange’s asylum request – yet regardless of what the country decides, Assange can still be arrested by the Metropolitan police the moment he sets foot outside the embassy. And even if he somehow made it to Ecuador, he would be forced to live a life in exile for years to come, shadowed constantly by a cloud of fear and restricted in the countries he could visit.

It would make far more sense for Assange's supporters to join forces with some of his critics, shifting focus by lobbying the US government directly. Whatever your opinion of Assange's personality, that does not matter in the broader scheme of things. The US government’s desire to pursue a prosecution against him is an attack on principles of press freedom, principles that any democratic society must strive to defend.

Alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning was held in conditions described by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" in a military prison for ten months. It was public indignation over his treatment that helped move him to a new prison, where he is now treated more humanely. There is no reason why a sustained and well-organised campaign, headed by some of Assange’s many high-profile backers, could not have a similar impact. An assurance from the US government that it will not seek to extradite Assange as part of its WikiLeaks investigation is the only way this saga can have a desirable ending.

Julian Assange, arriving for a hearing in the Supreme Court. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war