Julian Assange: The fallen angel of the radical set
Once, activists painted Julian Assange as a secrets-busting messiah - now they just think he’s a very naughty boy.
’We are all Julian Assange’, chanted campaigners outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London at the weekend, showing their solidarity with the Wikileaks founder taking refuge inside. Such is the diminished popularity of Assange that the number of cameramen and film crews outstripped the tiny coterie of protesters. But it was not so long ago that vast swathes of activists and journalists would have been queuing up to declare their support in a grand, I-am-Spartacus manner.
‘Assange was like a pied piper, gathering followers around him in region after region’, stated two former Wikileaks-worshipping Guardian journalists in a recent book. The extent to which Assange was fawned over is hard to overstate. Whenever Wikileaks published a new batch of revelations, newspapers would often run large pictures of Assange with his ‘lean frame and long silver hair [and]… boyishly enticing grin’, while excitedly discussing upcoming Hollywood biopics and who might play Assange. Neil Patrick Harris? Paul Bettany? Bill Hader? Perhaps Tilda Swinton? One New York Times columnist recounted a Wikileaks retrospective in Berkeley where Assange was beamed ‘like the mighty Oz’ on to a cinema screen to discuss how the Western media could do more to hold American imperialism to account. He recalls that ‘about half the audience seemed on the verge of tossing their underwear at the screen’.
Serious writers would pen pieces explaining ‘Why I love Wikileaks’; campaigning journalist John Pilger announced Assange was the ‘truth teller’; a writer for the New Yorker painted him as ‘a rail-thin being who has rocketed to Earth to deliver humanity some hidden truth’. Assange could do no wrong in the eyes of liberal commentators, to such an extent that he became parodied as ‘St Julian of Assange’, passing down the gospel through liberal news outlets. He was runner-up in Time magazine’s Person of the Year Award in 2010 (and was the readers’ choice by a landslide). Award-winning Guardian reporter Nick Davies personally assured Assange that ‘we are going to put you on the moral high ground – so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask. You’ll be up there with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa… They won’t be able to arrest you. Nor can they shut down your website.’
Yet having put Assange on such a pedestal, having hyped him up as a digital deity exposing the new clothes of imperialist emperors all over the world, the Western media then started to lose faith in him. Beginning to act like the messiah he had been made out to be, Assange had a spectacular falling out with the Guardian over what he deemed to be its libellous comments about his decision-making processes about what to publish. And accusations that Assange sexually assaulted two women in Sweden have led to a drawn-out extradition process. Initially the media – minus a handful of feminists who inflated the charges to be akin to rape – defended Assange, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find any mainstream journalist who would stick up for their former hero.
Assange is now being accused of having a messiah complex, by the very people who hyped him up to be a messiah in the first place. And, as he sits smarting in his windowless room, trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, he may be somewhat justified in wondering why journalist Heather Brook hasn’t yet turned up, Mary Magdalene-style, to bathe his feet – she recounted in a book that they had joked about doing something like that. The truth is that this once-friendless Australian computer nerd only became the irritating megalomaniac we see today due to the liberal media’s attempt to hoist him on to such a moral high ground that – to run with Nick Davies’s metaphor – he went giddy with oxygen deprivation.
Far more than an insight into the psyche of an over-hyped hacker, the fall from grace of Julian Assange reveals the flimsy, fickle nature of modern-day radical campaigning. In not facing up to his rape charges, Assange has now ‘tragically compromised’ the Wikileaks mission, says one columnist. His ‘halo has been tarnished’, declares an Independent editorial. Only last year, Assange spoke at Occupy London to rapturous applause, getting protesters robotically to repeat after him, ‘We are all individuals’. Now, even the remnants of the Occupy movement are deeply divided about whether to support one of their icons.
Previously, as those Guardian authors argued, ‘the media and public split between those who saw Assange as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as a James Bond villain’; now almost across the board, Assange is demonised as a cat-stroking baddie. While his celebrity status is still great – the Hollywood films, documentaries and HBO programme are still coming our way – it is far more down to a fascination about how this ‘third act’ will play out, rather than any popular desire to see Assange emerge victorious.
St Julian of Assange was never the messiah; many of his Earth-shattering leaks amounted to little more than tittle-tattle. But where once campaigners may have stuck by their leaders, seeing them as offering essential insight and direction, now they can be unceremoniously dumped at the slightest sniff of something unsavoury. The backstabbing and betrayal of this former pin-up by campaigners and the media speak to a fickle, Judas-like quality that is becoming ever-more commonplace in some campaigning circles.