Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography

Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography
Julian Assange
Canongate, 339pp, £20

Julian Assange is nothing if not a divisive figure. WikiLeaks's year of publishing triumphs - the Collateral Murder video, Afghan and Iraq war logs and a trove of 250,000 diplomatic cables - was accompanied by battles on all sides: Assange v the US state department, Assange v Sweden, Assange v his former media partners, and even Assange v his own legal team.

Against this backdrop, his autobiography was always going to find it hard to fulfil its promise as "one of the unifying documents of our generation". The text eventually published is an early draft of a partial manuscript, assembled from interviews with Assange conducted by Andrew O'Hagan. It covers his life until roughly a month before the press publication of the US diplomatic cables last November.

As such, there is nothing in the book to convey the pressure and the sense of injustice felt inside WikiLeaks during the publication of the cables. I was one of a small group of people in London at the organisation's core at the time, and Senator Joe Lieberman's successful call for US companies to cut off services to the organisation, or Sarah Palin likening staffers to terrorists, felt utterly different from that perspective.

O'Hagan's writing is at its best covering Assange's early life: a nomadic existence in rural Australia, replete with floppy disks hidden in beehives and nightly forays through secure servers. Yet even here, the strident note familiar from Assange's public pronouncements often vanishes, replaced with the mannerisms of a British aesthete. "It occurred to me on the steps of the court that I had travelled a very long way to see such snow," he muses after being granted bail on sexual assault charges in December. The language and tone are wholly uncharacteristic.

It is in depicting some of Assange's relations with women that the book conveys his personality most forcefully. "I felt I could be a good father to my son, but not a good mother," he writes about Daniel, the child he had when he was 19. "I was good at teaching, structuring, protecting, even at bedtime stories, but . . . hopeless at the other bits, the more mundane and less heroic parts of parenting." Later, dwelling on the "rising bosom" of the daughter of a Newcastle minister, he reflects: "It seemed I was exactly what she secretly longed for: a man willing to openly disagree with her father." And he refers to his 46-page report on his own rape case as "an exercise in scientific journalism".

The voice also sounds authentic when talking about betrayal. Assange is a man who, in his own words, trusts easily. Unfortunately, he almost always soon feels let down. At his Australian trial for hacking offences in the 1990s, his co-defendant testified against him. "It was a look I would come to know," he recalls wearily. "The look of betrayal, organised on the face to look like a high-minded interest in the truth."

Those who "betray" him always do so either through malice or to appease vested interests. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, for years the second most visible face of WikiLeaks, attracts four brief mentions, all either faint praise or carrying a hint of spite. The Guardian investigations editor David Leigh, mentioned but not named, apparently crosses him solely to earn one last scoop before retirement.

The desire to lash out against his enemies, often in colourful prose - the Guardian's "lily-livered gits in glass offices" is particularly fine - drains much of the immediacy from the book. All the characters apart from Assange are barely defined. No one else contributes anything much, either to the book or to WikiLeaks. Those who betray him show hardly any human traits other than glaring faults of character.

The Unauthorised Autobiography portrays Assange as self-interested to the point of obsession. There is no mention of, or justification for, WikiLeaks's darker decisions - such as its co-operation with Israel Shamir, an anti-Semite with close ties to figures in the Russian security services. It seems an organisation without flaws.

Whether the fault lies with Assange or with his publisher, which released this book without his agreement after he ducked out of the project but failed to repay a £250,000 initial advance, is not clear. Canongate has made some strange decisions. Besides Leigh, Heather Brooke and Nick Davies are identifiable but never named - perhaps as a shield against libel. Yet, in other places, the book boldly names individuals whom others fear to mention.

Herein lies the problem. There are too many competing voices: Assange's, O'Hagan's, that of the Canongate team operating without the oversight of either. As a result, Assange need not defend anything in it he does not like, and it often sounds nothing like him. The road to publication, his lack of candour and the book's bizarrely early cut-off leave every stone unturned. Never mind a unifying document: this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting.

James Ball is a data journalist at the Guardian

James Ball is special correspondent at Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?