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What’s new about WikiLeaks?

We shouldn’t be surprised by the war on WikiLeaks. The elite have always loathed the radical press,

Once, at the time of a major popular upheaval, elites on different sides of the political divide feared the general population more than each other. The rising merchant classes may have opposed the more traditional, aristocratic nobility, but both sides feared the radical publishers who were stirring up the people past a point of no return. As one writer put it:

They have cast all the Mysteries and secrets of Government, both by Kings and Parliaments, before the vulgar (like Pearl before Swine), and have taught both the Souldiery and People to look so far into them as to ravel back all Governments, to the first principles of nature. They have made the People thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.

Although these words could easily describe the situation today in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, they were in fact written in 1661, by a man called Clement Walker, about popular radicalism at the time of the English civil war in the 1640s.

This was a crucial time in the history of publishing - and the history of governments' attempts to control what the people could read. Printing presses, invented two centuries earlier, were becoming more accessible, and the first newspapers were appearing throughout western Europe as a result of the creation of a postal system. Today's maxim, "technology drives dis­tribution", has long antecedents.

During the civil war, the established printers and booksellers were not the only ones who published newspapers: craftsmen from less exalted trades published their own. For four years in the 1640s, a tailor named John Dillingham published the Moderate Intelligencer, reporting on developments in the civil war. (His attempt to report soberly on the conflict soon brought him into conflict with Gilbert Mabbot, official licenser of the press, who tried to replace the Intelligencer with something more overtly supportive of Oliver Cromwell.)

Pamphlets, manuscripts and other smaller newsletters also appeared regularly, all reflecting the concerns of their authors. Little wonder that there was such concern among the elite that the people were becoming, as Walker put it, "so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit".

Today, as a small organisation, WikiLeaks is firmly in the tradition of those radical publishers who tried to lay "all the Mysteries and secrets of Government" before the public. For reasons of realpolitik, we have worked with some of the largest media groups, but we have also broadened our base to more than 50 regional publishers, activist groups and charities, giving them early access to hundreds - or, in some cases, thousands - of documents relevant to their countries or causes.

WikiLeaks also remains true to the ideals of the popular newspapers that flourished in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.In Ruthless Criticism, a well-regarded dissection of the US fourth estate, the historian Jon Bekken finds that there were once "hundreds of newspapers in dozens of languages, ranging from local and regional dailies issued by working-class political organisations and mutual aid societies to national union weeklies and monthlies".

These newspapers not only reported the news but also offered, as Bekken puts it, "a venue where readers could debate political, economic and cultural issues. Readers could follow the activities of working-class institutions in every field and could be mobilised to support efforts to transform economic and political conditions."

While the blogosphere is now rightly seen as reflecting the diversity of popular concerns, the idea of a truly representative media goes back to these labour traditions. For example, in 1920, a number of editors in the United States established the Federated Press, a co-operative news-gathering service that sought to counter the biases of the mainstream press. The service ran until the 1940s, supplying roughly 150 publications.
The labour movement's own press was, in its time, extremely popular; even before the First World War, its newspapers enjoyed a circulation of more than two million copies in the US. The Appeal to Reason, the largest left-wing journal, enjoyed a weekly circulation of three-quarters of a million.

But as conflict in Europe grew closer, there were co-ordinated attempts by the establishment to bring these publications to heel; in the US, the Espionage Act of 1917 made it an offence to argue peacefully against the war effort. One early victim was Eugene Debs, the American Socialist Party and labour leader, who was convicted in 1918 of making a pacifist speech and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The New York Times, true to form, had been calling for his imprisonment for more than two decades, saying in an editorial of 9 July 1894 that Debs was "a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race. There has been quite enough talk about warrants against him and about arresting him".
The paper added: "It is time to cease mouthings and begin. Debs should be jailed, if there are jails in his neighborhood, and the disorder his bad teaching has engendered must be squelched . . . it is well to remember that no friends of the Government of the United States are ever killed by its soldiers - only its enemies."

Seen within this historical perspective, the New York Times's performance in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and its hostile attitude to WikiLeaks today, are not surprising.As well as the hostility of governments, popular grass-roots publishers have had to face the realities of advertising as a source of revenue. According to the analyst James Curran, the Daily Herald, a British newspaper of the early 20th century, had nearly twice the readership of the Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined. It was forced to close in 1964, however, despite being among the 20 largest-circulation dailies in the world, because its largely working-class readers did not constitute a lucrative advertising market.
The liberal News Chronicle was another casualty of advertising shortfalls, closing in 1960 - when it was absorbed into the right-wing Daily Mail - despite having a circulation more than six times larger than the Guardian's.

Of course, WikiLeaks does not have this reliance on advertisers. Rather, we face a dif­ferent financial problem as a publication: how do we deal with an extrajudicial financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa (including Visa Europe, registered in London), MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, the Swiss PostFinance, Moneybookers and other finance companies, all keen to curry favour with Washington?

In the long view of history, WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay "all the mysteries and secrets of government" before the public. We are, in a sense, a pure expres-sion of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine.

Julian Assange is editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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