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The Politics of Wikileaks

14 May 2020
By Nicolas Johnston
Julian Assange at a press conference at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Source: David G Silvers

With his extradition to face espionage charges in the US almost a fait accompli, Julian Assange’s legacy is up for grabs. In the ensuing free-for-all, reality has taken a backseat to the narratives that various interest groups would prefer the public associate with Assange’s plight.

Geoffrey Robertson, Assange’s own defence lawyer, recently did a short Q&A for The Australian. In it, he emphasises his alarm at the danger Assange’s extradition poses to free speech. He then, however, makes the rather curious leap to express his broader concern about the decline of liberal democracy and the rules-based order. What Robertson seems to leave unsaid is that Assange, at best, opened political space for that decline or, at worst, was a not insignificant contributor to it. Those opposite him in the courtroom might even reasonably argue that Assange’s being brought to justice is “the system” nominally defending the legitimacy of those very institutions Robertson fears for. Before Assange’s hearing recommences on 18 May, it’s worth revisiting some critical points about Assange and Wikileaks to help interpret the dynamics currently at play.

Government transparency was never Wikileaks’ primary objective

Countless journalists and advocates have proclaimed Assange a symbol of free speech and government transparency. Like Robertson, they prefer to excuse the political chaos Assange caused as a regrettable by-product of what they promote as their common mission of holding the government to account.

That position is, however, subtly misleading. Assange made it explicitly clear early on that – unlike those journalists and activists comfortable with the status quo – transparency was never his ultimate goal. Rather, the release of sensitive information was primarily geared towards political change – to undermine what he described as the “conspiracy” of government. In other words, Assange imagined that the widespread fear and paranoia induced by the slow and methodical publication of their secrets would impose a “secrecy tax” on governments and agencies with things to hide, making them inefficient compared to more open forms of governance.

Importantly, what Assange actually leaked thus mattered only inasmuch as it maintained optimal pressure on those governments he saw as unjust (he was notoriously cavalier about the release of compromising personal information). While media organisations were more than willing to publish his more salacious revelations, they did so with profoundly different objectives in mind.

Assange was only really popular because he caused noticeable damage to “the system”

Government apparatuses for years sought to discredit Assange as a “high-tech terrorist” who wanted to see the world burn. In doing so, they subtly reframing discussion of Assange away from the leaks he actually published and towards the less damaging topic of the nature of leaking itself. The logic here is simple: if people could be convinced Assange was an enemy of the nation (or democracy in general), they would be more willing to overlook the atrocities he revealed that were committed in its name.

The reality, in my view, is much more complicated. Assange was the symptom of an age looking for an antihero, a political outsider with enough power to cause actual damage to a system people perceive as corrupt and unaccountable. For these people, the content of what was leaked never mattered so much as the damage it caused to “the system” and the public spectacle that ensued.

This inherently anti-establishment sentiment was naturally captured by Donald Trump in his populist 2016 election platform, leading some to accuse Assange of partisanship. It’s worth noting, however, the complete 180 Trump did once he inherited the reins of state and found himself at the very centre of the “conspiracy” Assange had his sights on.

Removing Assange from the picture won’t cause that sentiment to subside

The question that remains is simple: what happens after Assange?  The system has evidently decided that the only way to defeat Assange is to swallow him whole. This is probably correct. Assange’s enduring failure will be that, by making himself as much the story as the leaks he published, he also made himself the single point of failure in the enterprise. Without him, Wikileaks has lost its brand and a significant deal of credibility (the Wikileaks website hasn’t published a “leak” since late 2018).

A follow-on effect will be that numerous copycats will attempt to take Assange’s place. The more that do emerge, the less credible each will be, and the more likely a valuable leak will be lost to the ether. The flip-side is that those who might once have contemplated leaking to a credible figure like Assange might no longer see leaking as worth the risk.

Governments cannot, however, become complacent. Assange never wanted to promote transparency; he wanted to destroy the status quo from the inside out, and it should sound alarm bells that a lot of people around the world cheered him on doing just that. With Assange gone, those hearts and minds won’t magically be brought back into the fold. More than likely, they will remain in cruise control until a new “public enemy” finds a chink in the system’s armour.

Nicolas Johnston has a masters degree from the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW Canberra). He received his BA in Political Science and International Comparative Studies from Duke University, North Carolina.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.