WikiLeaks turns on Julian Assange

WikiLeaks staff call for its founder to step aside in view of rape allegations he faces.

Julian Assange could be facing a rebellion from within his own organisation over the rape charges laid against him in Sweden.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and previously an influential supporter of WikiLeaks, has gone on the record on the Daily Beast website to say that she has encouraged Assange to give up his responsibilities with WikiLeaks until after the criminal investigation is over.

I am not angry with Julian, but this is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand. These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he's dealing with and let some other people carry the torch.

Jónsdóttir went on to say that she didn't believe Assange's assertions that the rape allegations were part of "an American-organised smear campaign". She also criticised the way he has previously run the organisation, saying that "there should not be one person speaking for WikiLeaks. There should be many people."

For someone like Jónsdóttir, who has previously lobbied hard on behalf of WikiLeaks, to be so openly critical of its founder is indicative of serious internal differences within the organisation.

Another source, who refused to be named, said there is a strong feeling among WikiLeaks volunteers that Assange should step aside for the good of the organisation. Apparently, technical staff protested against his refusal to go by taking the WikiLeaks site offline temporarily, ostensibly because of technical difficulties. However, the source said:

It was really meant to be a sign to Julian that he needs to rethink his situation. Our technical people were sending a message.

The investigation into the rape allegations against Assange was reopened last week after a Swedish prosecutor stated that he had "reason to believe that a crime was committed".

These signs of internal rebellion cannot be good news for WikiLeaks. The organisation relies heavily on thousands of volunteers and donors to keep it afloat, and if there is indeed discontent in the ranks, the whistleblowing website's future could be in danger.

But most of all, this raises questions about Assange himself. Mysterious and elusive, he personally attracts a disproportionate amount of the coverage surrounding his organisation purely because of his enigmatic persona and reportedly unorthodox lifestyle.

As I observed at the press conference on the day WikiLeaks released the Afganistan war logs, journalists are fascinated by Assange, and kept asking him questions long after he had any new answers to give purely because of the novelty of having him standing before them in the flesh.

The statements from within the organisation seem to show that he runs the operation in a very egotistical way, refusing to share power or responsibility with those who give up their time to assist him.

There is no doubt that the oddness of his personality has enhanced WikiLeaks's traction with the media. But now that he is under criminal investigation, that technique is turning sour, contaminating the ideals under which WikiLeaks purports to operate with Assange's own egotistical style of leadership. To continue to front the organisation under such circumstances would do long-term harm to its credibility.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.