Exclusive interview: Julian Assange on Murdoch, Manning and the threat from China

The WikiLeaks founder talks to John Pilger.

In this week's New Statesman, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks to John Pilger about Bradley Manning, his "insurance" files on Rupert Murdoch and News Corp – and which country is the real enemy of WikiLeaks.

To read the entire feature, pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available on news-stands from tomorrow. Some highlights of the piece are below:

The "technological enemy" of WikiLeaks is not the United States, but China, according to Assange.

"China is the worst offender" when it comes to censorship, says the controversial whistleblower. "China has aggressive and sophisticated interception technology that places itself between every reader inside China and every information source outside China. We've been fighting a running battle to make sure we can get information through, and there are now all sorts of ways Chinese readers can get on to our site."

On Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, Assange says: "I'd never heard his name before it was published in the press." He argues that the US is trying to use Manning – currently stuck in solitary confinement in the US – to build a case against the WikiLeaks founder:

"Cracking Bradley Manning is the first step," says the Australian hacker. "The aim clearly is to break him and force a confession that he somehow conspired with me to harm the national security of the United States."

Such conspiracy would be impossible, he says. "WikiLeaks technology was designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never knew the identities or names of people submitting material. We are as untraceable as we are uncensorable. That's the only way to assure sources they are protected."

Yesterday, Assange's lawyers warned that if he is extradited to America he could face the death penalty – for embarrassing the leaders of the US government. "They don't want the public to know these things and scapegoats must be found," Assange says.

And despite the pressure the website has been under, reports of trouble at WikiLeaks are greatly exaggerated, he claims.

"There is no 'fall'. We have never published as much as we are now. WikiLeaks is now mirrored on more than 2,000 websites. I can't keep track of the spin-off sites – those who are doing their own WikiLeaks . . . If something happens to me or to WikiLeaks, 'insurance' files will be released."

The contents of these files are unknown, but, according to Assange, "They speak more of the same truth to power." It is not just government that should be worried about the content of these files, however. "There are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organisation and there are cables on Murdoch and News Corp," he says.

The attempts by Washington to indict him should worry the mainstream press, he adds.

"I think what's emerging in the mainstream media is the awareness that if I can be indicted, other journalists can, too," Assange says. "Even the New York Times is worried. This used not to be the case. If a whistleblower was prosecuted, publishers and reporters were protected by the First Amendment, which journalists took for granted. That's being lost."

More WikiLeaks coverage by the New Statesman:

Protect Assange, don't abuse him

Getting the Assange issue wrong

WikiLeaks whistle blows time on the old game

Julian Assange arrest: why both sides are wrong

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
Show Hide image

How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue