Assange's crusade does not diminish charges


OPINION:The WikiLeaks founder’s idealised behaviour in public life cannot neutralise any alleged bad behaviour in private, writes LIBBY BROOKS

THE ARREST of Julian Assange has escalated to a new pitch of intensity a controversy already beyond precedent. The arrest of the WikiLeaks founder over sexual offences allegedly committed in Sweden this summer was already fiercely contested. But in the 48 hours since he was remanded in custody in London pending extradition proceedings, those denouncing his prosecution as malicious and politically motivated have grown angrier and ever more profuse.

An unlikely coalition has formed around Assange and, whether explicitly or implicitly, against his two accusers.

The veteran journalist John Pilger, who – along with filmmaker Ken Loach and charity fundraiser Jemima Khan – offered bail sureties to the court, dismissed the charges as a “political stunt”.

The author and activist Naomi Wolf condemned the women for “using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appear to be personal injured feelings”. Human rights champion Bianca Jagger tweeted about one of the complainants’ supposed links with the CIA.

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, the British campaigning organisation Women Against Rape queried “the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued”.

These models of left-wing and liberal opinion find themselves, intentionally or otherwise, shoulder to shoulder with a motley assemblage of conspiracy theorists and internet attack dogs that has been mauling the characters of Assange’s accusers since their complaints were first lodged in August.

Barely established online niceties regarding the discussion of sexual assault cases were overturned: the women’s personal photographs, CVs and blog posts have been dredged for evidence of sexual deviance, mental instability and vengeful intent. Claes Borgström, the women’s lawyer, said yesterday that his clients were “the victims of a crime, but they are looked upon as the perpetrators”.

In circumstances as volatile and globally significant as this, it is practically impossible not to see these charges in conjunction with the broader political accusations levelled at Assange and his website.

The alacrity with which the British justice system has pursued this warrant when it is so notoriously slow to respond to similar complaints made by its own citizens doesn’t deserve to pass without comment and, as Women Against Rape noted in their letter, there is an ignoble tradition dating back to the racist lynch mobs of the American Deep South of using sex crime allegations to furnish political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety.

But Assange’s status as embattled warrior for free speech is taken as giving permission – by those on the left as well as right – to indulge in the basest slut-shaming and misogyny. It’s terrifying to witness how swiftly rape orthodoxies reassert themselves: that impugning a man’s sexual propriety is a political act; that sexual assault complainants are prone to a level of mendacity others are not (and, in this case, deserving of the same crowd-sourced scrutiny afforded leaked diplomatic cables); that not all forms of non-consensual sex count as “rape-rape”.

The latter phrasing comes courtesy of Whoopi Goldberg, who coined the term last autumn in a defence of film director Roman Polanski, then facing extradition to the US after his arrest in Switzerland over a 32-year-old statutory rape charge. It feeds the narrative that consent is so difficult to prove in cases where the victim knew her attacker, or was drugged or drunk, and the violation so much lesser, that the only crimes worth prosecuting involve violent strangers in dark alleys.

It also underlies the assumption that a man’s good behaviour in public life somehow neutralises bad behaviour in private, thus recasting the domestic assaults of footballers like George Best and Paul Gascoigne as indecorous, rather than violently criminal.

By this measure, rape allegations against a maverick internet provocateur are diminished in the context of his crusade for truth instead of, albeit unpalatably, being capable of existing alongside it.

In defence of Assange, the Wikiblokesphere has fixed on the details of the cases available in the public domain, in particular consent to intercourse only with a condom, as proof of a spurious “non-rape-rape” charge. In fact what is significant about the Swedish system is not that it employs a broader definition of rape than in other countries – it doesn’t – but that prosecutions are based not on consent but whether a complainant’s “sexual integrity” has been violated.

In addition, alleged victims can instruct their own lawyers, who often seek second opinions after an initial dismissal, which may offer a rather more pedestrian explanation for why the cases have been reopened now.

The speed with which this latest episode in the WikiLeaks saga has been reduced to weary tropes about honeytraps, castrating feminists and undeserving victims is depressing. In an apparent plea to haul the debate back from the soup of smear and counter-smear, Naomi Klein argued that “defending WikiLeaks is not the same as defending rape”.

But the fact that the defence of Assange has spawned such naked and vitriolic misogyny should be of concern to all women and men who find it as distasteful and counter to the pursuit of truth as the attacks on WikiLeaks itself.

Libby Brooks is deputy comment editor of the Guardian. This commentary first appeared yesterday on the newspaper’s website