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Julian Assange

Nick Bryant | 09:04 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Setting to one side the rape allegations against him and focussing solely on the release of the so-called Wikileaks cables, should Julian Assange be seen as a dangerous subversive who has recklessly imperilled global security or a possible candidate for Australian of the Year? Is he a muck-raking troublemaker bent on embarrassing America or a kind of Robin Hood of the information age, who has leaked from the richly endowed, namely the United States government, for the greater public good?

At a start of the year, I dare say relatively few of Julian Assange's compatriots would even have heard of the Queenslander who founded Wikileaks. Twelve months on, however, he is rivalling Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for the unofficial title of the world's most famous Australian. Clearly, he is the most talked about and consequential. This week his face peers out from the cover of Time magazine, always a useful measure of global significance.

Up until today, the Gillard government has been fierce in its condemnation of Assange for his part in revealing the Wikileaks cables. Julia Gillard stopped short of saying that he had broken any Australian law, but said that the "foundation stone" of the Wikileaks affair was "an illegal act". She also claimed that the release of once-secret information, such as the critical infrastructure list, was "grossly irresponsible".

But the foreign affairs minister and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has now offered something of a defence. In an interview with Reuters, Mr Rudd said that the Wikileaks founder was not himself responsible for the unauthorised released of the documents from the US diplomatic communications network, and that the Americans were responsible for that.

He raised questions over the adequacy of security in the US government, especially the level of access that people had to sensitive material over a long period of time. Crucially, he added that those who originally leaked the documents were legally liable, not Mr Assange.

Mr Rudd's comments came on the very day that diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Canberra were released to the media, which were highly critical of his performance as prime minister. They described him as a "mistake-prone control freak", especially in the realm of foreign affairs, his supposed area of expertise.

In the view of the then US ambassador Robert McCallum, Rudd's diplomatic mis-steps were largely the product of "snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian government". A prime example was Mr Rudd's ambitious goal for a Asia-Pacific community along the lines of the European Union. A surprise to virtually everyone, it came completely out of the blue.

The Americans were seriously miffed that Mr Rudd allegedly leaked a private conversation with the then US President George W Bush in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In it, President Bush reportedly asked "What's the G20?" when Mr Rudd suggested that it should be convened. The Sydney Morning Herald has the full story here.

In response to the American slurs, Mr Rudd said he didn't "give a damn." But his comments in support of Mr Assange have already been dubbed "Rudd's revenge". As I write, it is hard to know precisely what is quite going on here and who is the true voice of the Australian government on this matter, Julia Gillard or the man she deposed.

As for the man at the centre of this diplomatic imbroglio, Mr Assange has always struck me as the quintessential global citizen rather than being a kind of "true blue" Aussie. Moving from country to country, with seemingly no fixed abode, he leads a peripatetic lifestyle and clearly spends much of his time on the borderless worldwide web. For him, Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website that he established in 2006, appears to double both as domain and realm. With his mop of silver hair and pale complexion, he even has the look of an avatar.

So it was interesting to read an op-ed piece by Assange published in this morning's Australian newspaper, where he traces his present campaign, which he describes as "fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public", to his childhood in Queensland.

During his formative years, Queensland was an Australian Louisiana, a state renowned for its notorious institutional corruption. For 18 years, the then Premier, Sir "Joh" Bjelke-Petersen, ran Queensland as if he were a potentate and regularly used the threat of litigation against journalists and news organizations to prevent them probing too deeply into his government's dealings. Eventually, investigations into high-ranking police corruption by Brisbane's Courier Mail and ABC's Four Corners programme led to a public inquiry, the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which ultimately led to the downfall of Bjelke Peterson's government. Now, as others have written, much of Queensland has transformed itself into a California.

The thwarted muck-raking of the Bjelke Peterson years is the journalist tradition which Assange claims to be tapping into. "I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly," he writes in The Australian. "They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully. The dark days of corruption in the Queensland government before the Fitzgerald inquiry are testimony to what happens when the politicians gag the media from reporting the truth. These things have stayed with me. WikiLeaks was created around these core values."

Some are already drawing parallels with the detention of an Australian, David Hicks, at Guantanamo Bay. Hicks, who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, was found guilty of providing material support for terrorism by an American military tribunal. But he became something of a folk hero for many Australians, because of the widespread feeling that he was treated unfairly by the Americans after being detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial.

Legal action against Julian Assange is now active in Britain, which means the moderators are going to have to be even more stringent than usual - assuming our technical problems are ironed out, which is frustrating for all of us. But if he does return to these shores, what sort of reception should he receive?

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