Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review:

  • Read in combination, the books portray the scale of Assange’s ambitions to be seen as a world-changing figure, a David who brings down the Goliath of American military power. “Where’s the respect?” he keeps yelling at the stolid Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, who regularly disappoints Assange in this department.
  • The Guardian reporters are frank enough briefly to mention that the paper’s other current high-profile campaign – to establish the full truth of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World – is a piece of gross hypocrisy in Assange’s view. Assange made clear that he thought criticism of phone-hacking a contemptible attempt by “sanctimonious handwringing…politicians and social elites” to claim a right to privacy to which they aren’t entitled.
  • Some of the funniest scenes in the book by Leigh and Harding recount the arguments between Assange and the Guardian editors. The best of all features the Guardian’s donnish editor Alan Rusbridger patiently explaining to a volcanic Assange that Wikileaks might look a bit, well, silly if they were to sue the Guardian for revealing something he hadn’t authorised them to print. At the time of writing, Assange is still threatening to sue the paper.
  • Much of Domscheit-Berg’s book doesn’t rise above the level of playground complaint. He had a couple of years as Robin to Assange’s Batman and still hasn’t got over being dumped.
  • As Wikileaks became a global phenomenon thanks to a single huge leak, both men struggled to grasp the ideas that drive journalism as opposed to computer hacking. That, for example, people may actually want information selected, explained and presented – and be prepared to run the risks that this may involve manipulation.
  • Both Assange and Domscheit-Berg seem unreflectively puzzled that the Afghan and Iraq wars are still happening after all they have told the world.

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