The world’s most wanted house guest by Vaughan Smith
Having watched Julian Assange give himself up last week to the British justice system, I took the decision that I would do whatever else it took to ensure that he is not denied his basic rights as a result of the anger of the powerful forces he has enraged.
This decision – which will result in one of the most unusual Christmases I have ever experienced – began to take shape last Monday night, as we gathered round a computer in my home, talking via Skype to Mark Stephens, Julian’s solicitor, in London.
This is how I remember the scene…
It is late in the evening. The screen periodically goes to sleep and Sue, a friend, keeps tapping the keyboard to keep it awake, relighting their faces.
Julian is completely still except his foot, which he rocks from side to side. I remember being told that he always did this when he was concentrating.
I feel that I am intruding, but Julian smiles at me. He does that: brings you in and makes you feel you are important to him when most of us would feel too preoccupied to do such a thing.
Julian is in front of a computer all the time. Immersed and uninterruptable; you feel you could arrive in a clown suit and he wouldn’t notice you.
But often you can gently greet him while he is typing furiously and he will immediately stop what he is doing and report developments for half an hour, well beyond the time you feel he should get back to his work.
The call is finished, and Julian is standing by the fireplace. Miles away. We start discussing the call. A couple of other friends and supporters are there too. Julian is still quiet but he is listening to us. The conversation dries up because the call to Mark has brought it all home.
There seemed to be other options, but they are all of straw. Julian dismisses each as it is suggested. He doesn’t want to look as if he has something to hide. The British police have said they want him and he is going in.
Sue and the other friends start discussing his statement. I get my camera set to film it for them and start working on the logistics. I don’t work for WikiLeaks, but I get drawn in. The police have given less time than expected and he cannot be late.
Julian sits on the sofa. Then he lies down. Then he sleeps. He’s been up for 48 hours. We don’t film any statement.
Then it is morning. He has to be at the police station at 9am, and Mark and the defence team need to see him at 7am. Sue and Jeremy are struggling to get Julian out of the building and trying to keep everyone’s spirits up by joking with him that he is never on time for anything.
We are all exhausted, and I can see that Sue is holding back tears as she bundles Julian into the car. Sue, Julian and I drive off but everyone expects us to be back by the evening.
We get to Mark’s home and it’s still dark. I notice a photographer getting his camera out of the boot of his car as we are about to park behind it, and we drive past. He deserved a picture for getting up that early on a cold morning to stake out Julian’s solicitor’s home, but he didn’t get it.
We meet Mark in a nearby greasy spoon and have breakfast in a back room. Julian is hungry, as he had no dinner last night. Mark gets straight into discussing the case and tells us that the police have changed the station that Julian is to report to.
Mark’s manner is grave but comforting and I can see that Julian and Sue are feeling the pressure. Sue goes out for another cigarette.
Jennifer joins us from Mark’s team and we drive to Kentish Town Police Station. Sue drives, Mark is on his mobile for most of the journey and we are all trying to be quiet. Julian is in the back, between Mark and Jennifer, on his computer, working on the statement.
I look at the familiar glow of the computer screen on Julian’s face, and after a while I notice the computer go to sleep. But Julian doesn’t switch it on again. He stares through it and I look away as I find myself feeling a surge of empathy for him. The statement is not finished as we arrive at the police station.
We drive through large blue gates and bland and besuited policemen and women are around the car. Mark and Julian get out and I try to observe while Sue struggles to park in the absurdly small parking space that she is directed to. I feel intimidated by the brutish ordinariness that this damned place exudes from every structure and person. I have visited police stations and prisons but never felt so uncomfortable before.
We are gathered behind Julian and Mark and a policeman reads out four Swedish charges, but I am not listening. Where I am standing, on one side, I can see Julian’s still face as he hears them. I admire his courage. He knows more clearly than anybody that he pressed the trigger long ago. Or, rather, the return key. The leaks are unstoppable whatever happens to him.
I ponder the disservice to Julian done by the media. With their stockings stuffed by WikiLeaks they dehumanise him with images printed and screened of a cold, calculating Machiavelli pulling strings from secret hideouts. The main hideout, of course, being the Frontline Club, where many of them have interviewed him.
They made him out to be the internet’s Bin Laden. The likeness might be poor, but that was OK because the colours were familiar and bright. Now the focus is on Julian’s court fight, instead of on the opaque political system that his leaks have exposed. The charges that Julian faces have already been dropped once, from a Swedish court that even Glenn Beck, the incendiary US Fox News TV host, rubbishes.
Julian is different to most of us. He is clever and obsessive but also funny and self-deprecating. But he has started something seismic but inevitable, a consequence of modern communications that cannot be stopped. One day we might be governed better as a result. Vengeance by the authorities is weakness here and will not help us face the challenges of the times.
I resolved then, and on that ugly spot, that I would never abandon Julian. It wasn’t any more about whether Wikileaks was right or wrong, for good or bad. It was about standing up to the bully and the question of whether our country, in these historic times really was the tolerant, independent and open place I had been brought up to believe it was and feel that it needs to be. If to fight for this country we will have to fight for its fundamental principles of justice then I declare my position in the ranks.