The Character Assassination of Julian Assange

On 16th June 2019, posted to Catherine Brown’s blog

Two events entitled ‘Imperialism on Trial – Free Julian Assange’ were held at the Crypt on the Green and St James’s Church, Clerkenwell, London, on Tuesday June 11th, and Wednesday June 12th, 2019, 7-10 pm, organised by Greg Sharkey.

Summary of Proceedings
with presentations by:
Chris Hedges (Pulitzer Prize Winner and Presbyterian Minister)
Fidel Navaez (Former Senior Diplomat at the Ecuadorian Embassy)
Vivienne Westwood (Fashion Designer and Campaigner)
Lauri Love (Former US Extradition Defendant)
Tommy McKearney (Former Irish Hunger Striker)
John Wight (Journalist)
Ahmed Kaballo (Journalist at Press TV)
George Galloway (Politician and Campaigner)
Ogmundur Jonasson (Former Icelandic Interior Minister)
Patrick Henningsen (Journalist at 21st Century Wire)
Clare Daly (Irish TD & MEP)
Alexander Mercouris (Journalist at The Duran)
Neil Clark (Journalist)
Catherine Brown (English literature academic)

Catherine Brown’s speech

I want to talk about character assassination. Of course, people’s characters – their reputations – are harder to kill than their bodies. And, unlike with bodies, it is rarely done by just one or two assassins. Often many people collaborate in trying to kill a reputation by a thousand cuts, or at least, to weaken it to the point where people who do not know what has gone on will no longer want defend the victim from any other kind of injustice.

Character assassination consists of ad hominem and public attacks in bad faith, with the aim of discrediting someone, and therefore depriving them of sympathy, perhaps liberty, perhaps life. Character assassination can smooth the path to physical assassination, or it can be used in retrospect to justify it. It can harm its subjects directly as well as indirectly, since they may have nervous breakdowns because of it.

Character attacks have been made on Julian Assange more or less constantly since at least 2010, when Wikileaks released the Chelsea Manning evidence of US war crimes, but particularly around the time of the issue of the Swedish arrest warrant in relation to rape allegations; at the time of Assange’s entry to the Ecuadorian Embassy; at the time of his arrest this April; after the first US extradition warrant regarding conspiracy with Chelsea Manning; after the Swedish prosecutor announced that she was reopening her investigations; after the second US extradition warrant on indictments under the Espionage Act; and after the Swedish court’s decision not to issue an arrest warrant.

Character assassination is crucially not the same as the death of a reputation through as it were suicide – damage people do to their characters by their own actions. Wikileaks, for example, does not, through its leaks, assassinate characters. What it does is reveal evidence that certain powerful people’s characters are in a critical condition. It does not even editorialise to the effect that these people are ill. It, as it were, leaks their moral medical records, which, given the power that those people have, it is emphatically in the public interest to do.

It can be used against individuals, or against groups – like the blood libel against European Jews from the Middle Ages onwards. Individuals can be attacked to discredit the movement which they represent, as the rumour was spread by the British that Gandhi slept with children in order to undermine the Indian Independence movement, or indeed like Assange, whose damaged reputation extends in the first place to Wikileaks, and in the second to whistleblowers and their publishers in general.

Its effects are often permanent. Even if someone’s reputation doesn’t die it may, as it were, spend the rest of its life in a wheelchair, as people often remember accusations more vividly and permanently than any eventual exoneration. It can last for centuries.

What do we remember about Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell? That he had an affair with Kitty O’Shea. And he did. And opinions of the badness of adultery vary between people. But it was weaponised by the opponents of Home Rule to damage that cause, and even today, the weapon that was used is remembered more clearly than the cause that was attacked.

It’s been going on for centuries. Some of the earliest Christian biographers of the Prophet Mohammed did it. Some Puritans did it in their lurid charges of sexual misconduct against Popes. Henry VIII’s courtiers did it in alleging that Anne Boleyn had committed incest with her brother. The French revolutionaries in their charge that Marie Antoinette had committed incest with her son. Alfred Dreyfus was accused of having many mistresses. Sex is so often an element.

And, as when you use your body to protect someone who is being physically attacked, you risk getting hurt, so those who defend Assange can find their characters being attacked – as Pamela Anderson and others have discovered. Indeed, we as Assange supporters have all been described by a Guardian journalist as, I quote, ‘cunt soup babbling on about press freedom’. And a Sunday Times journalist claimed that ‘many of those who still support Assange are hard-right nationalists’.

So what are the weapons and techniques of this process?

Fabrications, insinuations, rumours, ridicule, misleading exaggeration.

Use of accusations – whether true, half-true, or false – to distract; to taint by association; or to create uncertainty.

When any of the accusations are true, as with Parnell and Dreyfus, they are often not connected to the cause that is the ultimate subject of attack – which is why private life is so often used in campaigns that are politically-motivated.

Character attackers invariably appeal to good principles – to the principle that killing Christian children to use their blood in making Passover mazzos is not a good thing. That indulging anti-Semitism is not a good thing. That using any degree of coercion in a sexual situation is not acceptable.

But good impulses, misdirected, can be a powerful force for ill.

Partly because innocent individuals get caught up in a general charge of guilt.

The fact that anti-Semitism and sexual abuse are rife in this world not does not mean that any given person accused of them is therefore guilty.

And partly because the fact that these things are rife makes it all the more important not to taint the anti-anti-Semitic cause, or the MeToo movement, by the terrible association of a witch hunt. In the name of justice, you have to proceed justly.

Now character attacks are often done horizontally – for example between competing candidates in an election.

But in the case of Assange since he took asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, the attacks have been vertical – from the more to the less powerful. It’s been done by the British government, in its urging of Sweden not to drop its case against Assange when in 2013 it wanted to do so for the second time. When it discouraged the Swedes from interviewing Assange at the embassy. Or when it recently urged Sweden to apply for Assange’s extradition.

Many journalists have been involved.

They’ve engaged in misrepresentation by omission

By not telling the public those facts in the Swedish case that strongly indicate that it was being politically manipulated

That don’t mention the fact that the investigation was at first closed and Assange told he was free to leave Sweden

That it is not the case that someone has to be physically arrested in order to be charged under Swedish law

That Assange has never been charged by Sweden

Or that Sweden has a history of cooperation in rendition to the US, which led Assange to fear rendition ifhe returned to Sweden to meet allegations which seemed to have been revived in political circumstances – as his lawyer unsuccessfully argued in his defence at Southwark Crown court a few weeks ago.

Some of the accusations are rhetorically worded

As in the latest US indictment, which is repetitiously and portentously phrased and strung out to a length that itself asserts guilt.

Accusations have been made with no or little evidence

That he colluded with Russia

Is anti-Semitic

Is careless in his redaction and about US lives; though in the trial of Manning it was admitted that there was no evidence that his revelations had caused death or injury.

That he spied on Ecuador when in its embassy, as a representative of the new government asserted

That he is pro-Trump and anti-Clinton

That he didn’t change his clothes, and ate with his hands

Did not look after his cat

And smeared excrement on the embassy walls. Of the last if there were footage, as we are assured he was constantly surveilled, it has not been released.

And these things are used to ridicule him

As in the ugly descriptions of him as gibbering and gesticulating as he was removed from the Embassy, and countless cartoons and jokes on this theme.

As a journalist put it recently in what sounds like an analysis of the character assassination, but is in fact participating in it:

‘Assange was once seen as a quintessential left-wing figure, the Robin Hood of the information age; now he’s a Trump-supporting goblin who smears his own poop on walls. This makes it, shall we say, less urgent to defend him’ [Sady Doyle, Medium Politics, 16.5.19]

Why would you, in fact, give up an evening such as this one to listen to defences of an excrement-smearing cat-abusing Trump-and-Putin-loving life-endangering anti-Semitic narcissist who gibbers?

Well, there’s a clear answer.

If Assange were all of those things, I hope we would still be here to oppose his extradition to a country where he is at risk of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture found Chelsea Manning to have undergone, and such as the Rapporteur has also found Assange to have undergone in his time in the embassy.

That would only be in accordance with the law, the Human Rights Act, which forbids putting people at risk of torture or the death penalty.

Many of you will remember the sixteen months that Augusto Pinochet spent under house arrest in London between October 1998 and March 2000.

If he had risked extradition to somewhere where he faced torture and an unfair trial, I hope that I would also have taken action to oppose it.

But it’s interesting to consider the parallels and differences.

If you accept Assange’s argument, as I and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture do, that his stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy was involuntary, then both men were detained against their will.

Both feared extradition from onecountry that wasn’t their own to another.

It was reported of both that they were suffering from ill health.

UK politicians got involved in both their legal cases.

But in Pinochet’s case there was overwhelming evidencein the public domain for many of the charges that judge Balthazar Garcon of Spain brought against him, which were for crimes on a far greater magnitude than the worst that has been alleged against Assange by anyone.

In the UK press Pinochet was not the target of ridicule, nor was his behaviour in captivity the subject of speculation or rumour.

Pinochet faced extradition to a country where the maximum penalty that he might have faced would have been imprisonment, which was a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights, and which had no reputation for the ill treatment of its prisoners at that time.

A former UK Prime Minister, his personal friend, argued publicly against Pinochet’s extradition. The House of Lords ruled otherwise, but the Home Secretary intervened and said that on medical grounds he should be returned to his country, and not stand trial in Spain.

There has, to say the least, been no such merciful intervention in Assange’s case.

In these two cases we see the differences between one in which character assassination did not take place, and one in which it did.

In both cases, Britain was found to be on the wrong side of international law, and was criticised by the UN for that.

And of course, what Assange definitely did – as opposed to what he might have done – was to reveal precisely the kinds of crimes for which Pinochet would have been tried.

But the character attacks don’t just render Assange vulnerable. They deflect attention from his revelations onto him.

It is of course easier for the human mind to focus on one human story than the fate of anonymous masses. By Assange and his highly-filmable life story, rather than the anonymous Iraqis killed by a helicopter attack in Baghdad.

Are we guilty of doing the same? And with Manning, and with Snowden? Of focusing on the filmable hero or, if you like the anti-hero, rather than the greater narrative that they revealed?

Well, I do think it’s something we have to keep in mind.

But I also think we’re justified in defending a single human being who is currently vulnerable to mistreatment and injustice in this country – though of course we should similarly defend anyone similarly placed.

We are also defending a principle, and arguing against the setting of a precedent that would be dangerous to journalistic freedom

Single people can focus a cause, in a way that helps that cause, as the case of Nelson Mandela so well demonstrates. And once he was freed, so were thousands of others.

And in this case the two injustices – the one that Assange revealed, and the one that he is victim of – are of a piece.

The international overreach of US law in the latest indictment is the counterpart to the overreach of the US military that Assange exposed.

The journalists who were until recently hostile to Assange, but who oppose the latest extradition request, are too late – they can’t undo the damage they have done. Given that the current scenario was a live possibility that Assange himself had predicted, it was at the very least reckless for them to undermine his reputation as they did.

But the worst hasn’t happened, and I pray that it won’t. As for character assassination lasting for centuries – it isn’t always like that. Consider how we remember Dreyfus – as the man who didn’t spy for Germany, but who was wrongly accused of it, on the basis simply that he was rich, had affairs, and was Jewish – all of which was in his case true but irrelevant.

I hope that history will remember Assange first for the good he did, and as a distant second as a man who faced a campaign of character assassination which failed. We are doing all that we can to ensure that it does not succeed.