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).

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.