My film doesn't "abuse" Julian Assange. But in a story about Wikileaks, facts matter

A response to John Pilger from Alex Gibney, director of "We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks".

How sad. John Pilger, who once had a claim to the role of truth-teller, has become a prisoner of his own unquestioning beliefs.

In a recent piece in the New Statesman, he attacked, with undisguised vitriol, my film on WikiLeaks and an essay by my executive producer, Jemima Khan, for “smearing” and “abusing” Julian Assange. He also implied that our motives were dishonest, perhaps because our views differed from his own. I initially thought to ignore Pilger’s fulminations. After all, Jemima’s original essay was articulate and persuasive. But because he assails my film, because his piece is so full of factual errors and because his style is to bully – rather than to persuade – I thought it was important to set the record straight. In a story about WikiLeaks, an organisation that claims to be dedicated to the truth, facts matter. 

The first fact that should be noted is this: John Pilger has not seen my film.

What is criticism without observation? It feels more like religious zealotry than reason. Would Pilger now insist that the proper role of a WikiLeaks supporter is to treat Assange as “the one” who cannot be questioned and to abandon what Assange calls “scientific journalism” in favour of blind faith?

Pilger says I “abuse” Assange. But had he seen my film, he would have witnessed many powerful sequences highlighting Mr Assange’s original idealism and courage. Indeed, I was drawn to this tale because it was a David and Goliath story in which Assange stood up to governments and corporations with a singular determination to use transparency as a weapon to combat mendacity, corruption and crime.

Pilger attacks the title of my film. But he got even that wrong. It is not “WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets” as Pilger wrote. It is We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks. [Note: A few days after the original publication of Pilger’s piece, the New Statesman corrected Mr Pilger’s error.]

Why is the difference important? The made-up Pilger title – which was a better fit for his tendentious argument – implied that the film indicted WikiLeaks for “stealing secrets”. In fact, “we steal secrets” is a quote taken from the film, uttered by the former CIA director Michael Hayden. Thus, the title of the film is intended to be, er . . . ironic. (Would Pilger have thought my title Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room signalled my admiration for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling?) Further, the intent was not to single out WikiLeaks but to set the story of WikiLeaks within a context of the way that governments – and now citizens also – steal, or leak, secrets, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. The film is not just about Assange; it examines many parts of the WikiLeaks saga, including the story of Bradley Manning. Writ large, the film is about the internet itself, and the conflict about what should and what should not be secret in the digital age. 

Now let’s examine Mr Pilger’s claim that Jemima and I misrepresented Sweden’s attempt to hold Mr Assange to account for possible sex crimes. He says the “Swedes have refused all requests for guarantees that he [Assange] will not be despatched in a secret agreement”. Gee, that sounds bad. The Swedes must be up to something.

But if Mr Pilger were to travel to the world of fact for a moment, he might see things differently. No government – including the UK – would selectively undo its laws for a particular individual, even if he is Australian, a former hacker and happens to have white hair. Extradition is a legal matter. Neither Sweden nor the UK would give anyone a guarantee prior to any request. Every request – if made – must be considered on its merits. Extradition is part of the rule of law and, as such, must apply to all individuals, even those who are friends with Mr Pilger. So, yes, the Swedes, up to now, have turned a deaf ear to all inquiries about hypothetical extradition requests.

Mr Pilger goes on to denigrate the possible accusations of sexual misconduct and rape – yes, rape – that are the concern of the Swedish prosecutors. Brushing aside any evidence, Mr Pilger pronounces the sex “consensual”, as if to say “that is that”. He quotes two women – yes, women! As if gender alone is proof of the rectitude of an argument – saying that the Swedes “manipulate rape allegations at will”

What Mr Pilger ignores is that the British courts have upheld the viability of accusations – if proven – as equally serious in the UK or Sweden. From the incomplete record of evidence that is now public, it appears that all of the exchanges between Assange and the two women may not have been so “consensual”. Of particular concern to the Swedish authorities were Assange’s aggressive behaviour and his various refusals to use a condom despite repeated requests by the women.  As a hypothetical matter, this could have resulted in unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of the HIV virus. But don’t take my word for it. The UK courts have concluded that the alleged actions by Assange – if proven – would be a form of rape in the UK or Sweden. He has had three separate hearings in the UK and they have ruled Sweden’s extradition request as legal.

Neither Jemima Khan nor I would argue that Assange, at this moment, is guilty of a crime. Like any individual suspected of wrongdoing, he must be given due process every step of the way. Assange often likes to note that he has not been “charged” and ridicules the Swedes for not agreeing to question him via Skype. But, in fact, Assange is wanted for more than questioning. As the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, has stated, “The preliminary investigation is at an advanced stage . . . Subject to any matters said by [Assange], which undermine my present view that he should be indicted, an indictment will be lodged with the court [after questioning]. It can therefore be seen that Assange is sought for the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings and that he is not sought merely to assist with our inquiries.”

According to Swedish law, Assange must be present in Sweden for due process to continue. Put another way, in Ny's formulation, he cannot be charged unless he is on Swedish soil. So Assange’s continued assertions that he hasn’t ever been charged have a kind of farcical – or even Orwellian – ring in a Swedish context. So long as he refuses to go to Sweden he likely can never be charged. Hello, Ecuador!

A key point of Jemima Khan’s piece – and a rather small section of my film – is that Julian Assange has undermined his high-minded principles by intentionally seeking to confuse them with his refusal to be held to account for possible sex crimes. Further, he has been silent regarding the vicious online attacks by his supporters on the Swedish women – including posting gun targets on their faces – even as he has been outspoken on the subject of his own persecution. Another fact: his “imprisonment” in the Ecuadorean embassy is self-imposed. There is no proof of a secret agreement between the US and Sweden to airlift Assange to Guantanamo (as one of his lawyers once suggested) if he leaves the Ecuadorean embassy. The film does not abuse or indict Assange in reference to the Swedish matter; it only raises questions about universal human rights (Swedish women have rights, too) and why Assange thinks that he should be above the law.

It is true – as my film points out – that WikiLeaks was the victim of an unfair embargo by Visa and MasterCard, and that Assange is likely the subject of a grand jury investigation by the US department of justice. At one time there was a rumour – revealed in hacked emails of the company Stratfor and also mentioned in my film – that there was a sealed indictment naming Assange. But facts should prevail. There is no proof that any [US] charges have been filed or are even imminent. There is some indication that the US government may be looking at data theft charges. But my sources tell me that the DoJ is wary of charging Assange under the Espionage Act because, as a publisher, there would be little to distinguish his role from that of the Guardian or the New York Times. Both the Times and the Guardian have said, publicly, that they would rush to Assange’s defence in the unlikely event that he is charged under the Espionage Act. So would I.

John Pilger’s defence of his friend Assange – by denigrating the human rights of two women in Sweden – is reminiscent of the dark side of religious devotion. In fact, as a lapsed Catholic who has just produced a film on the cover-up of sex crimes by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, I recognise Mr Pilger’s behaviour as a kind of noble cause corruption. As a point of comparison, what would we think if a cleric sought to elude accusations of sexual abuse because his overall mission was too holy to be questioned?

Jemima Khan wrote that Julian Assange runs the risk of becoming like Scientology’s L Ron Hubbard. I think his behaviour more resembles that of the outgoing Pope, who, like Assange, is fond of giving speeches to assembled multitudes on balconies. In that context, John Pilger resembles Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, we recall, referred to sex abuse survivors’ cries for justice as nothing more than “petty gossip”.

There are many people, including me, who admire the original mission of WikiLeaks. But those supporters should not have to stand silently by as WikiLeaks’s original truth-seeking principles are undermined by a man who doesn’t want to be held to account for accusations about his personal behaviour. To paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Julian Assange is not the Messiah; and he may be a very naughty boy.

Update 1/3/2013: John Pilger responds:

Alex Gibney's absurd online rant at me for defending Julian Assange hardly merits a response, except that it contains serious falsehoods.

For the record: far from writing about his film with no knowledge of it, I had read an entire leaked transcript of the film. Gibney's assertion that the UK courts ruled on the merits of the women's case is also false. The courts ruled only on the legality of the extradition documents lodged in the UK -- documents based on a treaty that the UK and most of the EU will almost certainly repeal at the earliest opportunity. And far from dismissing the Swedish women's accusations out of hand, I sat through days of evidence in London courtrooms and, unlike Gibney, have reviewed all the discovered evidence including critical evidence of the women's SMS exchanges. 

So what is this nonsense about? Assange refused to appear in Gibney's gratuitous film about WikiLeaks - a wise decision as Gibney's rant demonstrates.

Julian Assange addressing members of the media and supporters from the window of the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge in December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Gibney is an Oscar-winning director of documentaries, including We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005).

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.