With news of the founding of a WikiLeaks political party and a Hollywood film about its founder Julian Assange in the works, Shana Ting Lipton contemplates the political and pop cultural impact of the polarising media figure
Like some strange creature in a political fairytale, Julian Assange — who is being sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge in an attempt to avoid extradition and charges abroad — can occasionally be seen giving speeches on the small sliver of a balcony of the diplomatic building.
Yet, no one could accuse the WikiLeaks founder of living in an ivory tower. This week, a member of the WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance (WACA) put Assange’s name on the electoral role in his native Australia, in Melbourne, as leader of a new party. WACA is a support campaign with a seat on the national council of the new WikiLeaks party. The latter’s platform: transparency in government and business.
It has been a high-profile start to 2013 for ‘the other contentious Australian media mogul.’ In addition, The Fifth Estate, a film about Assange and his WikiLeaks political whistleblowing site has begun shooting in Reykjavik.
Whether on the move or restrained, it is clear that nothing can stop Assange’s pop cultural and political influence from growing. His goal, to promote government transparency in an age of obfuscation — at all costs — has clearly struck a chord with the masses.
Assange’s unpredictable, radical but always strategically presented persona has as well. Few may have expected the king pin of the anti-government movement to found a political party, and whilst confined no less.
Yet, the fledgling party — which consists of a ten-member national council — will be ready to convene before the end of February 2013. This marks the first step towards a senate run in Victoria, Australia for Assange (should he win and be unable to return there to take office, another WACA nominee will step in for him).
His cinematic renown is another story. The Wikileaks movie has serious star power behind it; Benedict Cumberbatch has taken on the lead role and Bill ‘Twilight’ Condon is directing. The latter has publicly proclaimed the film’s neutrality towards its polarising main character.
That said, it is difficult to imagine anyone feeling apathetic towards the love/hate figure. Even Assange himself raised an eyebrow. After a version of the script was (quite appropriately) leaked to him, he debunked it as a vehicle for ‘propaganda.’
It wouldn’t be the first time he had expressed dissatisfaction — to put it mildly — over caricature-like portrayals of himself. Possessing an eccentric flair for the dramatic and the intellectual ability to substantiate those quirks, Assange has been dubbed everything from a James Bond villain, Jason Bourne and L. Ron Hubbard, to autistic.
In his 2011 autobiography (which, like so much material on the provocative activist, was ‘unauthorised’), he flatly but humorously shrugged off the latter. “… people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger’s or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so let’s just say I am — all hackers are, and I would argue all men are, a little bit autistic.”
Opponents of Assange and WikiLeaks — which exposes previously unpublished political, diplomatic or historical information of ‘ethical significance’ by soliciting and protecting government aligned moles — see them as dangerous and anarchistic. Proponents view them as crusaders fighting to liberate information and promote political honesty.
This great divide seems to fuel the ongoing fascination with the globetrotting hacktivist-cum-editor — whose travels have taken him through Queensland, Tanzania, Nairobi, Stockholm and Reykjavik and who, in his youth, attended over 30 schools.
To some, he’s the Guy Fawkes of the mobility era. Or perhaps a data alchemist. “I began to think of information as matter, and started to examine how it flows through people and through society, and how the availability of new information brings about change,” he explains rather eruditely in his 2011 autobiography.
London tourists and die-hard local fans alike have come to look forward to his balcony speeches. Such imagery — rife with almost comical Evita Peron undertones — has only added to his legend. This, and the fact that his organisation has, according to some authorities, played a key role in the Arab Spring.
In 2011, Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty said, in an annual roundup, that it had been “the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered.” In so doing, he singled out WikiLeaks’ release of previously-confidential government files as an impetus for the Arab Spring’s seminal Tunisia uprising.
In a February 2013 remote video interview on the United States political television programme Real Time With Bill Maher, Assange proudly and perhaps calculatingly reminded American viewers of this self-aggrandising fact. Were he to leave his current confinement at the embassy, he would be extradited to Sweden to face charges of non-consensual unprotected sex offences, and then to the US where he would stand trial under the Espionage Act.
‘This is a matter of there being costs and benefits,’ he said to Maher justifying WikiLeaks whistleblowing actions. ‘We look at the benefits of what we publish. There are massive reforms around the world.’
Assange pointed out that just as the US State Department and similar organisations have a responsibility to keep documents secret for a limited time, WikiLeaks has a responsibility to ‘publish fairly and fearlessly’ the materials brought to them by certain whistleblowers, in the public’s interest.
‘It’s alright for different bodies in society to have conflicting roles,’ said the multi-faceted editor, activist, villain, hacker, and now… diplomatic politician? ‘That’s what keeps all organisations honest.’
The Fifth Estate will be released in November 2013