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).

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game