Heroes and villains?

I wrote a piece a little while ago about Julian Assange – you can find it here – which amongst other things suggested that just because you consider someone a hero for one part of their lives doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily something other than a hero in another way. Events this week have reminded me of the other side of that coin: that just because someone might be seen as a villain in one way, doesn’t mean that everything about them is despicable. What’s more, if we  believe in human rights, it doesn’t mean that ‘villains’ shouldn’t have those human rights. One particular such ‘villain’ has been in the news these last few days: Max Mosley.

Before I say anything more, I need to make it clear that my background is very left wing – I have grandparents, step-grandparents and great aunts who were communists. I myself had the nickname ‘commie bastard’ at college – though all that really meant is that I was the only member of the Labour Party at what was then the extremely right-wing Pembroke College Cambridge. As such, Max Mosley is someone who I ‘instinctively’ look on with extreme distaste. His father, Oswald Mosley, was a particular figure of hate for my family – in case anyone is unaware, Oswald Mosley was the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, and a supporter of Hitler. Hitler was a guest at his wedding. I still consider myself to be very much on the political left. Max Mosley, not just as his father’s son, but as someone who represents extreme wealth and the excesses connected with it, is not someone that I have anything but instinctive dislike for.

…but just as even ‘heroes’ like Assange need to be subject to the law when appropriate (as I argued before), even those you dislike intensely need to be accorded rights. Indeed, one of the key tests of whether you really believe in human rights is whether you really grant them to those you dislike. Many people have been tested on those grounds over the last months and hardly come up smelling of roses – the attitude to the death of Gaddafi is perhaps the most extreme example. For Max Mosley, the test is simpler and should be less taxing. However much I might dislike what he seems to represent, he still deserves privacy. What the newspapers did to him was, in my view, unacceptable – and he was right to fight against them. Personally I thought he came across well in the Leveson inquiry. It wasn’t Mosley that looked like the villain here – and his work in supporting other victims of phone hacking is something to be applauded too.

…which brings me onto the other ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the last week: the press. If you listened as I did to the testimony of the many witnesses to the Leveson inquiry, from Mosley himself to the celebs like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Sienna Miller, to JK Rowling, to the families of Milly Dowler and Madelaine McCann, and to Margaret Watson, it’s hard not to see the press as venal, vicious, unprincipled and unfair. The instinctive reaction again is to punish them, to clamp down on them, to restrict them. And yet that’s not the whole story either – because we also have to remember how the story itself broke, though the work of the Guardian. We have to remember how the MPs’ expenses scandal was revealed by the Telegraph. How the cricket match-fixing scandal was uncovered by the now-departed News of the World. Just as Assange and Mosley could be heroes in one way and might be villains in another, so are the press. We need to look at the balance, and remember both sides to all their stories.

How is that balance maintained? The most important thing to remember is that it’s a dynamic balance, and that we have to remain vigilant. Don’t overreact – and that’s an easy temptation particularly in relation to the press, and if the stories about Max Mosley planning to sue Google are true, they would be a prime example of such overreaction, and something I plan to write about separately – but don’t be afraid of action either. Even in terms of the press, there are two currently very different things going on right now. At the same time as any action emerging from Leveson might produce restrictions on press activity in relation to privacy, the potential changes to the draft defamation bill might produce greater freedom for the press in relation to defamation. Instinctively, again, that might be right for people of my political perspective – defamation law has often been seen as a tool for the rich, while privacy should (though often isn’t, as I’ve argued before) be something of as much interest to the ‘insignificant’ as the rich and famous. Both the potential shifts in balance, from Leveson and from changes to libel law, could well be appropriate. Let’s hope it works out that way.

Assange – keeping the issues separate

Yesterday, as most people interested in the subject know, Assange lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct. He lost on all four counts of his appeal, and lost so convincingly that many commentators have suggested that his chances of success in one, final appeal to the Supreme Court are very slim indeed. He has not yet, at the time of writing, decided whether or not to make such an appeal.

It’s not the facts of what happened yesterday that matters to me, but the implications – and in particular, the reactions from so many people interested in Assange, in Wikileaks, in freedom of information, in combating secrecy, in the potential liberating power of the internet and so forth. For far too many of them, in my opinion, all these issues have been far to closely linked. We need to separate out the different issues. Julian Assange is not Wikileaks, and Wikileaks is not Julian Assange. Freedom of information and the fight against government and corporate secrecy and power is not dependent on Wikileaks, let alone on Julian Assange himself. We need to be able to separate the issues, and to think clearly about them. We need to be able to fight the right battles, not the wrong ones.

There are many people who, like me, are very much in support of the aims of Wikileaks, and who see the liberating potential of the internet as one of the most important things to emerge in recent times (without understating the reverse – the potential for the internet to be used for oppression and control, as so ably set out by Evgeny Morozov and others), but who, at the same time, support the concept of the rule of law, where that law is both appropriate and proportionate. I want open government, liberal government, accountable government – not no government at all. I don’t want personality cults, I don’t want anyone to be above the law, whether they are ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. For me, that means I want Assange to face his accusers, and I want to be able to find out whether he is guilty or not.

Assange has already lost a lot of supporters in Sweden – as this Swedish commentator points out – by attacking both their legal system in relation to sexual offences and their apparent willingness to extradite easily to the US. For me, both of these accusations need to be looked at very carefully. Most people who have studied the way that sexual offences – and in particular accusations of rape – have been treated historically in the courts should recognise that women have generally got a very raw deal indeed. The way that the Swedish system has attempted to at least to start to rectify this balance is one that should be applauded and supported, not attacked or even vilified, in the way that some supporters of Assange seem to have done – ‘the Saudi Arabia of Feminism’ is one of the descriptions put forward. Such attacks are not justified or in any way appropriate – at least not to me.

And are Sweden really more likely to extradite Assange to the US than we are in the UK? It seems unlikely, as Andy Greenberg’s report in Forbes suggests. The UK doesn’t have a good record in resisting such requests – and given all the publicity it seems highly unlikely that the Swedish would let such a thing happen on their watch. Moreover, the Swedish system would require dual criminality for an extradition to occur – that is, the offence committed has to be a crime both in the country seeking extradition and in Sweden itself. Assange’s ‘offenses’ would not easily be shoehorned into that description. Either way, it’s hard to see an extradition occurring from Sweden – extradition from the UK seems far more likely.

There’s one further point about the Swedish system – one that seems to have been missed by many of his supporters. It’s not really true that ‘no charges’ have been brought. As the judge pointed out in yesterday’s ruling, the Swedish system is different to that in the UK, and ‘charges’ are only brought at a very late stage, with a trial to follow almost immediately. The Swedish investigation has gone past the point where, in the UK, US or Australian investigation, charges would have been brought. Implications that the opposite true are really not helpful.

When I’ve suggested either that Assange was likely to get a fair trial in Sweden or that extradition to the US was unlikely, many people have shot me down, suggesting that there would be a stitch up between the Swedish and US authorities, that the charges were trumped up to start with – ultimately that there is a great conspiracy to bring Assange down. I don’t find the latter that difficult to believe – there are certainly some very bad things happening in relation to Wikileaks, and the approach used to try to squeeze the life out of them through the financial blockade is one of the most reprehensible and dangerous developments of recent years. However, if that conspiracy extends to ‘trumped up’ charges of rape and sexual assault on Assange, then for me that actually provides an opportunity, not a threat.

That’s where the rub comes. If Assange is guilty, then he should face the charges and receive appropriate punishment. If he’s innocent – and in particular if he’s the victim of a conspiracy-based set-up – then by facing the charges, by going through a legal process, he can prove that, and even expose the conspiracy. I’m not saying that I believe either way – neither I, nor the vast majority of either his supporters or his enemies know enough to know that. If he’s guilty, he wouldn’t be the first man to have abused his position of celebrity and power to behave inappropriately. If he’s innocent, he wouldn’t be the first innocent man accused in this way – or the first set up by his enemies.

For me, though, if you support the kinds of things that Wikileaks supports – exposing the truth, holding the powerful to account, moving towards a better, more open, more liberal future – you should want all this to be out in the open too. That means letting Assange go to Sweden, and it means refraining from the very smear tactics that his opponents use in relation to the Swedish judicial system. There are many, many things to be concerned about in relation to the treatment of Wikileaks, and indeed of Assange – but yesterday’s ruling, almost certainly correct from a legal perspective as bloggers like the excellent Adam Wagner have made clear, is not one of them.

Whether Assange is guilty or not, and whether he’s found guilty or not, supporters of freedom of information – and supporters of Wikileaks – should try not to tie his personal issues with the broader, more important issues that Wikileaks has raised. They’re not intrinsically and inextricably linked – and if we let them be, we’re playing into the hands of the very groups that we should be opposing.