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50 People Who Matter 2010 | 23. Julian Assange

WikiLeaks legend.

The arrival of WikiLeaks is one of the most exciting developments in the enduring struggle of ordinary people for the right to call secret power to account. This is what journalism should do.

For all the lip-service paid to Edmund Burke's idea of a fourth estate, the media remain an extension of the established order. The current wars demonstrate this. Instead of exposing the lies that have led to the carnage, journalists, with honourable exceptions, have amplified and echoed them. Scott McClellan, George W Bush's former press secretary, says his administration relied on the media's "complicit enablers".

WikiLeaks, says its founder Julian Assange, has "created a space that permits a form of journalism which lives up to the name that journalism has always tried to establish for itself". This year, WikiLeaks has released tens of thousands of official documents that describe the casual, almost industrial killing of civilians, assassination squads, and attempts at cover-up.

Anyone watching the leaked cockpit video of an Apache helicopter gunning down cameramen and children in Baghdad will not forget the pilot's reaction: "Nice." Having witnessed the brutalising effects of war, I felt like cheering when this was exposed and I read that it was viewed 4.8 million times in one week. This is the new "space" for a truth-telling we need urgently, as great power promotes its "perpetual war" and strives for what it calls "information dominance".

I have got to know Julian Assange, and what strikes me most about him is the unabashed morality he invests in WikiLeaks. It is unusual to hear the words: "The goal is justice, the method is transparency." He reminds me of one of our compatriots, Wilfred Burchett, the courageous reporter who incurred the wrath of the powerful by exposing the "atomic plague" of the Hiroshima bomb. Like Burchett, Assange has made some serious enemies for blowing such a loud whistle; the Pentagon has already threatened to "terminally marginalise" WikiLeaks. And this is his great risk and his honour.

I asked him what he had learned most from his glimpses of rampant power. "In one way or another I've been reading generals' emails since I was 17," he said (he is 39), "and what I see now is a vast, sprawling estate that is becoming more and more secretive and uncontrolled. "This is not a sophisticated conspiracy; it is a movement of self-interest to produce an end result that is [the wars in] Iraq and Afghanistan, which are used to wash money out of the US tax base and back to [arms] companies like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon." Another release of leaked documents is due soon.

I salute such principled audacity.

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John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.