Julian Assange arrest: why both sides are wrong

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The arrest of the WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has prompted two distinct reactions. Some, such as the Telegraph's Will Heaven, point out that the rape charges are entirely unrelated to the release of the US embassy cables. Others, such as a group that describes itself as "Justice for Assange", echo his lawyer Mark Stephens's claim that his client is the victim of an international "smear campaign".

In fact, these two positions are not as incompatible as they appear. There is no doubt that Assange's opponents have exploited the allegations against him for political gain. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, did little to dispel this suspicion when he said of the arrest: "I hadn't heard that, but that sounds like good news to me."

It is also doubtful that Sweden would have pursued an average alleged rapist with such persistence. As Stephens rightly points out: "It is highly irregular and unusual for the Swedish authorities to issue [an Interpol] red notice in the teeth of the undisputed fact that Mr Assange has agreed to meet voluntarily to answer the prosecutor's questions."

Yet all of the above has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of the rape allegations. For all their protestations, none of Assange's acolytes knows what happened on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. Stephens has summed up the issue as a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex". For good measure, Claes Borgstrom, who represents both of Assange's accusers, has argued: "This is a redress for my clients, I have to say, because they have been dragged through the mud on the internet, for having made things up or intending to frame Assange . . . There is not an ounce of truth in all this about Pentagon, or the CIA, or smear campaigns, nothing like it."

There is now no reason why the allegations should not be put before a court of law. Should the charges be trumped up, as Assange's lawyers suggest, they will not bear legal scrutiny. What does he have to fear? He should take this opportunity to clear his name.

UPDATE: Sweden does not, as I incorrectly suggested, have a jury system. The line in question has been amended.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.