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10 April 2011

This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place: Part II

Pictures, audio and reaction from the second half of Saturday’s Frontline Club New Statesman

By Staff Blogger

This is the second part of the New Statesman’s report on the whistleblowers’ debate. For the first, covering the speech by Julian Assange (including video), click here.

If anyone had feared that interest levels would drop after Julian Assange finished his speech, they were about to be proved wrong. The debate got more heated as the evening progressed.

Bob Ayers, following the WikiLeaks founder, immediately took him to task over the chronology of the Gulf of Tonkin incident he’d outlined in his speech, at which Assange leapt to his feet with a point of information.

Julian Assange debate: in pictures

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Ayers wasn’t giving way, though, sternly telling Assange that he hadn’t interrupted during his speech, and he expected the same “courtesy”. Assange persisted, and Ayers barked: “Sit down!” This didn’t go down very well with the audience; neither did Ayers’s assertion that there were other words for whistleblowers – “rats”, “sneaks”, “snitches” and “traitors”.

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Clayton Swisher of al-Jazeera tried to get in another point of information – his was allowed this time. He told Ayers that he’d also previously worked for a government organisation, in which the term “snitch” was used for informants on drug and other criminal cases. Governments liked snitches when it suited them.

Ayers acknowledged this and resumed his speech. The crux of it was that those in possession of sensitive information swore an oath of secrecy, which should not be broken.

At this point, there was a pause to hear from two whistleblowers – Annie Machon, ex-MI5 agent and partner of David Shayler; and Paul Moore, who spoke out about the over-leveraging of HBoS and lost his job in consequence.

Machon spoke first; she was engaging and forthright. She told Ayers that she had never “sworn an oath” of secrecy and that she had been obliged to speak out publicly because there were no internal procedures that allowed wrongdoing to be exposed. “The fourth estate are very easily controlled by the government and the intelligence agencies,” she said, adding: “We need some sort of legal channel to protect whistleblowers.”

Douglas Murray asked to come back on this and showed he wasn’t afraid to make the debate personal, citing Machon’s “9/11 denial” and asserting that she worked at only a “low level” in MI5. He told her: “Being in the secret service means you should keep secrets.”

Machon was unbowed, getting rapturous applause for saying: “We signed the Official Secrets Act to protect secrets, not crimes.” She added: “I know a lot more than someone who was never on the inside at all.”

Next up was Paul Moore. He kicked off by quoting Dwight D Eisenhower – “never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion” – before delivering a passionate (and at times painful to hear) speech on the personal cost of whistleblowing. He was outraged that there was no whistleblower on the proposition side, and produced his own whistle from his pocket to blow in protest.

Moore went on to say that transparency leads to a better world, but his own actions had cost him job and left him seriously depressed. He said that whistleblowers were treated like “lepers” and “toxic waste”; but that if more people had spoken out about the banks’ sharp practices in the run-up to the crunch, the lives of much of the British population would be better.

Before Moore went back to his seat, he read out a birthday card from his daughter, received at the height of the storm over his revelations. In it, she told him he was a good person, and to carry on doing what he was doing. It was a heartfelt moment.

After this, the chairman, Jason Cowley, decided to read out some questions submitted through the New Statesman website. The first was to Julian Assange (photos of him speaking can be found here). Cowley asked him whether he was concerned about the “collateral damage” charge against WikiLeaks: the possible harm to informants in Afghanistan, for example.

Assange replied that “WikiLeaks has never got it wrong” and the charge that not enough redacting of the documents took place was “hot air” from the Pentagon. In an assertion that cut little ice with those live-tweeting the event, he advised people to google “Pentagon” and “blood on its hands” versus “WikiLeaks” and “blood on its hands” and compare the number of hits. As Samira Shackle tweeted, he “seems to think that internet search results are an indicator of guilt”.

After a bit of a to-do over whether Murray should respond to this – he said he preferred to “keep his powder dry” for his upcoming speech – it was agreed that Mehdi Hasan would deliver the final proposition speech next.


As anyone who’s seen him on Question Time will testify, Hasan can never be accused of being a boring debater. “Technically the best speaker of the night,” is the journalist Patrick Smith’s verdict (he’s uploaded a decent-quality audioboo of the speech here). “The real star of this debate,” said Nasri Atallah.

“I’ve been to countless debates on fox-hunting and there were no foxes on the panel,” joked Hasan, addressing Paul Moore’s complaint. He continued: “I don’t want to talk about Julian. I want to talk about a man named Joe Darby . . . a high-school graduate from small-town Pennsylvania who joined the US army reserves at the age of 19, and was posted to Iraq at the age of 24.”

In 2004, Darby received two CDs of images of prisoner abuse at the US-run Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. “To use the lingo of the military, he ratted on his friends,” said Hasan, outlining how Darby lived in fear for his life, sleeping with a pistol under his pillow, moving house and eventually quitting the army.

This was the essence of whistleblowing, said Hasan – principled disclosure for the greater good. Until governments are perfect, we need whistleblowers. He also drew a distinction between spies who take an oath of secrecy and ordinary soldiers who uncover abuse, ending rousingly with a question addressed to Bob Ayers: “I’m here for the whistleblowers and the men who were tortured. Who are you here for?” (There is some early video footage here; higher quality on its way.)

Closing the debate was Douglas Murray, self-described neocon and Mehdi Hasan’s nemesis (they regularly debate each other on a range of issues, including Islam and multiculturalism). Murray cleverly decided that he couldn’t match Hasan’s passionate invective and opted to start his speech softly. “I agree with Mehdi,” he began. “It is perfectly true that democracy can be dishonest and corrupt. It is a deeply flawed system. It is, as Churchill said, the worst system going – except for all the others.”


Murray’s speech grew in intensity from here as he repeatedly asked Assange the question: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” As Assange itched to answer him back, he continued: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing when you release an element of chaos into the Middle East, a region that doesn’t need any more conspiracy theories?” He argued that democracies have checks and balances, and elections (one of which threw out the government that went to war over Iraq, he noted).

He raised the idea that whistleblowers have too much power and that their actions have consequences they do not intend. When he mentioned Annie Machon’s disclosure that MI6 was considering an assassination attempt on Muammar al-Gaddafi, he asked: “Are you sure it was a good idea for Colonel Gaddafi to know that?”

Assange had had enough, and jumped up again. Murray rebuffed him, saying he was going to ask him a lot of questions, and he would have the time to answer them at the end.

A bit of a stand-off ensued (photo here) but Jason Cowley eventually persuaded him to sit down by promising Assange that he could speak later.

Murray’s next point was whether Assange had any idea what foreign intelligence agencies, hostile to the US, would make of the cables. He began to say it was all very well for al-Jazeera, which was “implacably hostile to the state of Israel”, to release cables showing it in a bad light – and at this point Swisher (who works at al-Jazeera) jumped up.

Murray was still having none of it, cuttingly remarking that Swisher would have his time, and anyway he worked in Qatar, “not exactly an open, democratic government”. Now he was really on the offensive (leading several tweeters and bloggers to describe him as the opposition’s “attack dog“).

“What happens to whistleblowers?” Murray asked. “If Mr Assange is anything to go by, it’s a lovely life, you can make a lot of money, you can get a lot of admirers . . .”

Mehdi Hasan then became the third on the proposition side to try to raise a point of order, but was also batted aside. It felt a bit like a very polite game of whack-a-mole. Murray ploughed on, asking Assange more questions: why had WikiLeaks not released secrets about Russia? Was it because the FSB (the Russian secret police) actually assassinated journalists?

At this point, Assange stood up, and this time got his point of information. He said that colleagues of his had been assassinated, and would Murray “please do his research before making comments like that”. Murray didn’t back down, moving on to make reference to the Guardian‘s claim that Assange “didn’t care” about Afghan informants who were identified as a result of the release of the war logs.

Assange hit back: “Point of order! We are in the process of suing the Guardian . . .” After a bit of back and forth about libel laws – Assange said he has campaigned for their reform, but that people should have recourse when allegations are made against them – Murray drawled: “I think I’ll take from that that Mr Assange thinks libel law is good when he’s using it.”

Jason Cowley announced that no more points of order would be allowed: Murray should finish his speech uninterrupted. And so he built to a series of questions: where does WikiLeaks get its funding from? Who works for it? What are its links to the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir? What right does it have to decide what we should know? “Governments are elected,” he declared. “You, Mr Assange, are not. Who guards the guardians? Or, in this case, who guards the Guardian‘s guardians?”

He then addressed Assange directly, referring to his phone call to Ian Hislop of Private Eye, saying he had become lost in the “fever swamps of conspiracy”.

Assange was allowed time to respond. “Mr Murray has nothing to say about the motion here tonight, if he has resorted, like so many of that type, to personal attacks on me, and my organisation, which are of course unfounded,” he said. Assange added that he would reply to the “most interesting” of Murray’s questions, which was how WikiLeaks was funded – it was directly supported by the public, who “voted with their wallets every week” with donations.

“That dynamic feedback between us, whistleblowers, and the public, I say, is more responsive than a government structure elected after sourcing money from big business once every four years,” he concluded. (Esther Addley of the Guardian used this as the intro to her report on the event here.) Murray wanted to know more, asking if he could confirm whether WikiLeaks received money from anyone other than the public.

“You think you’re better than our governments,” he told Assange. “That’s because he is!” shouted a fan from the floor. Murray took this triumphantly, as a sign that the Assangistas are too slavishly devoted to the man rather than the idea.

Assange’s PA scurried on stage to drag him back to Norfolk to meet his bail conditions, barely giving Jason Cowley enough to time to take another vote. Murray’s bombastic speech had clearly done its work, because he seemed to have converted some of the pro side to his cause.

And with that, Assange departed the stage with a rock-star wave, and was gone.

Thanks to Patrick Smith, whose audio recordings were invaluable. You can listen to them here. To read the live tweets, search for the hashtag #fcnsdebate. Video from the event will be available later.