Jemima Khan, Julian Assange and the digitally savvy brain

The <em>New Statesman</em> editor reflects on the other-worldly WikiLeaks frontman and Jemima Khan’s

To Kensington Town Hall in west London on Saturday 9 April for the New Statesman/ Frontline Club debate. The motion was: "This house believes that whistleblowers make the world a safer place." Proposing were Clayton Swisher, head of al-Jazeera's transparency unit and the man who brought us the Palestine Papers in January; Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks; and our own Mehdi Hasan. Opposing were David Richmond, a former director of defence and intelligence at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Bob Ayers, who worked for the US government and who, from 1990-92, "was responsible for the security of more than 40,000 classified intelligence-processing systems at 55 locations across the world" (is he sure it was only 55, not 56?); and the superbly articulate Douglas Murray, who until recently was director of the Centre for Social (In)Cohesion. I was the chair.

Tickets for the event sold out within a matter of hours of its being announced on our website. It was apparent from the beginning - long queues had delayed the start, tension inside the hall was considerable - that most of those present had come to see the notorious WikiLeaks frontman; that it would be, if not exactly a Rally for Assange, then a setting in which he would feel comfortable, even adored. It didn't help that the debate felt rigged against the opposition: two invited whistleblowers intervened midway through to offer their sad stories of persecution and struggle from the floor.

Space oddity
I encountered Assange for the first time in the basement lavatories of the building. He was looking for somewhere to apply styling wax to his flaxen locks - his hair has grown longer since Christmas. Then, pale, thin and spectral, he was photographed as he ghosted around the snow-silent grounds of Vaughan Smith's mansion in Norfolk, where he has been living as he waits to discover if he will be extradited to Sweden over allegations of rape.

In person, Assange is reserved, watchful and unhurried. With his white-blond hair and fine features, he resembles both a younger Christopher Walken and David Bowie as he appeared, blanched and other-worldly, in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. As with many computer hackers and web geeks, there is something distinctly alien about Assange, manifested in his impatience with conventional structures and contempt for the morality of the masses.

As a platform speaker, he is measured without being forceful or inspiring. He laid out his case knowing that he was unlikely to be challenged from the audience. When a challenge did come, from Murray, it was bold and ad hominem. Knowing that he was operating in a hostile environment, with most of those present indicating in a vote before the debate began that they were in support of the motion, Murray chose to play the man rather than the ball. Who funds WikiLeaks? he asked. What is the relationship between Assange and the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir? Who ensures that WikiLeaks operates transparently? Who, in other words, guards the guardians? Do take a look at the recording of the event on our website (

Yes we Khan
People keep asking me if I was surprised by the extraordinary interest in last week's issue, guest-edited by the human rights activist Jemima Khan. On the morning of publication, the thought police were out in force expressing their inevitable suspicion and prejudice - her presence in the NS was "beyond parody", we were indulging a "socialite", and so on. It often seems to me that some people want to caricature the NS as dreary, predictable and ideologically pure (as well as factionalised and riven) and not, as I - and our regular readers - see it, plural, sceptical, unpredictable and fun, as well as serious. Her disparagers were soon silenced.

The idea of asking Jemima to guest-edit came to me when I was in Australia in December and watching on television there coverage of the Assange trial. An interviewer asked her why she had turned up at court. She said that she had never met Assange but believed profoundly in what WikiLeaks represented - its challenge to government power and secrecy. That impressed me and got me thinking.

We met for breakfast in January and discussed what I was doing with the NS and a possible guest edit. I sensed from the beginning that
the issue would be a success, because she has good journalistic instincts, sound judgement and charm. We both wanted the issue to be hard-hitting, with investigations and powerful commentary. And we wanted the set piece to be a major political interview. The interview - or that interview, as we must now call it - turned out to be with Nick Clegg. In retrospect, the headline should have been "Clegg Agonistes". However, the one we chose hinted at the pleasures to come: "I'm not a punchbag - I have feelings". Jemima's interview was, I thought, sympathetic; Clegg's advisers were less impressed and blamed the media furore not on their man's candour but on our pre-publication press release, which, I was told, sensationalised the interview. The truth is that it was not sensationalised: it was already sensational.

Trapped in the matrix
Martin Amis recently spoke about something he called "the digitally savvy brain". He was concerned that even "very literate people admit that they can't read books any more". The long read "was a dying art". The great Philip Roth said something similar in a fine interview with David Remnick in the New Yorker as long ago as 2000. Though I am much younger than both Amis or Roth, I grew up in an analogue age. I graduated from university in 1989 and, that summer, I wrote my finals papers in longhand. When I left the Times, where I worked as a staff writer, in the summer of 1998, email had only just been installed on our computers.

Back then, I used to read a lot of fiction. It's not that I have since lost faith in the novel as a moral form that, at its best, can bring news of the way we live today. It's more that I feel continuously overloaded by information and that there are too many demands on my attention from too many different sources.

Too often, when I am reading, I feel the irresistible draw of my BlackBerry, humming silently at my side. Too often, I succumb, put down a book or magazine (seldom a newspaper nowadays: I prefer my news online) to check the web, emails or texts, thus disturbing, if not altogether destroying, my concentration. I continue to resist Twitter and have no presence on Facebook or any other social media site, and yet the way I read, absorb information and even think has changed irrevocably over such a short period. This is, as Amis says, not just a moral but a physiological change and I don't know where it is taking us or how we will end up.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special