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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.