Tuesday, August 21, 2012

You can believe what you like about Julian Assange, as long as you don't try to defend that belief in Polite Society

I was extremely troubled by the way Gavin Esler handled his exchange with Craig Murray and Joan Smith over the Assange affair on Newsnight last night. I've no idea what the exact legal position is in relation to protecting the anonymity of an alleged rape victim in extradition cases. But given that a) Assange has not as of yet been charged with rape, b) if he is charged it will not be in this country, and c) the woman's identity has already been revealed umpteen times by several major media outlets, it's surely not immediately obvious that Murray did anything outrageous in mentioning her name. So unless he had been specifically warned off from doing so prior to the interview, Esler's sanctimonious reaction - effectively colluding with Smith to paint Murray as the Big Bad Wolf - seemed thoroughly disproportionate. And given the abuse that Smith then started to hurl at Murray, from which Esler did nothing to protect him, it was hardly unreasonable that he would want to take a moment to defend himself against the serious charge that he does not care about the rights of rape victims. Yet Murray had barely managed to complete his explanation that his own wife was a rape victim before Esler tried to turn even that against him. "You may have permission from your wife to mention that" (implication : it's rather distasteful even if you do) "but you don't have permission from this alleged victim. If you want to make a point about her, then do it anonymously, so what exactly is your point?" Esler's tone of voice when asking that question reminded me of a young mother I sat next to the other day, who sarcastically said to her wailing child over and over again "tell me why you're crying", ie. I know you're crying for nothing, I know you don't have a point at all.

But of course Murray did have a point - namely that the woman's actions after the alleged assault didn't seem consistent with her story. Yet even though Murray had done exactly what Esler asked him to, and made his point without mentioning the woman's name, even this was evidently Not Acceptable, and he was shouted down again. It's not as if Esler's attitude problem can be explained wholly by his moral outrage over the breach of anonymity, because even before that he had been less than even-handed, interrupting Murray with an air of exasperation when he tried to explain the credible reasons for entertaining the idea that Assange may have been set up.

Some people may very well think that it's inappropriate or illegitimate to cast any doubt whatsoever on the credibility of an alleged rape victim's story - but the difficulty here is that without doing so it's impossible to defend Julian Assange's position at all. That being the case, what is the point of having both a pro-extradition and an anti-extradition interviewee, if only the pro-extradition case is deemed to be within the bounds of civilised discourse? Esler might just as well have had a cosy chat with Smith only, and told his viewers "this is what you're allowed to know, this is what you're allowed to think".

If anyone had any remaining doubts about how morally indefensible it is to extend anonymity to an alleged rape victim but not to the alleged perpetrator, a few moments pondering the double-standards exposed by this interview ought to remove them.


  1. I don't live in Scotland and thus cannot see Newsnight, even on iPlayer.

    However having read your piece on it I was moved to read Craig Murrays version on his blog.

    Towards the end he writes this

    "Strangely enough, as I did the interview I was much less worried about it than I was on subsequently hearing it, because I did not realise the extent my microphone had been turned down compared to Gavin’s and Joan’s when they were speaking across me – which was most of the time I was speaking."

    Am I alone in thinking that the BBC uses this trick often also in political debates in Scotland to the disadvantage of the SNP.

    I remember one such in particular when Jim Murphy (hectoring and talking above a rival is chosen style) was on a panel with Nicola Sturgeon, who debates quietly and purposedly. Murphy damn near shouted he down and talked all the time she was speaking to the extent that I could not follow Nicola's thread.

    Another wee BBC dirty trick in the bag to be used against the SNP?

  2. Craig Murray's version of events should be read by anyone who is criticising him. Remember when we used to think you should hear both sides of a story before casting judgement? Nah, never mind that, BRING ON THE TWITTER MOB JURY!!!!

    I just watched the interview on YouTube, and I witnessed a calm, dignified performance from Craig Murray, refusing to interrupt when others spoke - but from the reaction on Twitter, you'd think he'd been making comments similar in style and content to those of George Galloway yesterday. When he mentioned Ardin's name (the second time - they didn't mind him saying it the first time), Joan Smith's reaction was that of someone who is waiting for their opponent to show a slight chink in their armour and pounce on it - similar to the "aha!!! You've slipped up and now everything you ever say on any issue ever is completely irrelevant" sort of reaction you often see in political discourse. Gavin Esler joined in, and they succeeded in shutting Murray up, and it was clear they weren't going to listen to the point he was making anyway.

    I think people on Twitter need to understand that this is not simply a case of people casually dismissing a woman's allegations of rape because they like the accused person. This is far more complicated than people effectively accusing a rape victim of being a liar because the accused is a popular celebrity who nobody thinks could possibly be a violent man. Unfortunately, rape is a dog whistle subject. If Assange was being accused of a non-sex-related crime, you would not have people reacting the way they are. But rape is a very emotive subject for some people, so as soon as it enters the affray, they lose any sense of perspective and focus only on the rape issue. It's understandable, but it's unfortunate.

    These people don't know that Assange has actually committed these offences any more than the rest of us do, but because it's rape, it's apparently okay to ignore the usual mantra of "innocent before proven guilty". But more than that, people need to understand that the likes of Craig Murray are not "rape apologists". Murray is not simply backing a friend against a rape allegation - he is pointing out that this follows a similar pattern to other whistleblowers.

  3. Honestly, I don't think it MATTERS whether the rape charges are credible or not. The concern is that if he goes to Sweden to face these charges, what will happen is that he will end up in the US facing ESPIONAGE charges and probably at best spend the rest of his life in prison.

    This has nothing to do with a possible rape. But people who don't want him turned over to the US for some reason feel they must try to discredit the rape charges. I am skeptical but it is for the Swedish courts to work out IF he is ever charged. But first they MUST guarantee he will not be turned over to the US!

  4. Very nice piece James.

    I've found the Assange case to be highly illuminating in the way it's been handled by the media here. We last saw this type of herd behaviour most acutely in the run up to the Iraq War. If the establishment gets behind a government line in such a big way and tries to shut down dissent with crass bullying tactics, crudely smearing any questioning of the official version as a "conspiracy theory" and a clear unwillingness to look at the details too closely then that should always set off alarm bells.

    Which isn't to say that Assange be given a free pass or uncritical approval of everything he does of course but when the onslaught from the media is so hopelessly one sided against him it's not as if he's ever in any danger of getting that anyway.

    Listening to last weeks R4 'Any Questions' was instructive but listening to the follow up 'Any Answers' was even more illuminating. I would recommend people listen to it to see that there is clear public disquiet out there even if it isn't getting through much right now.


    And for those who wish to know as much about the actual case in Sweden as possible this Australian investigative TV programme covered it in more detail than any I have yet seen. It is truly eyeopening in revealing the chain of events and exactly what occurred.


  5. Good Post.

    It is worth remembering that under Swedish law the accused in a rape case does have anonymity, but within hours of the two women attending the police station Assanges' name had been leaked to the Swedish Expressen newspaper.
    The BBC had no qualms at all about repeating the illegal leak.

  6. Surely the Swedish government can confirm they will not extradite Assange and then the rape case can be followed up?

    Have they refused to do so on grounds it is hypothetical?
    Even if that is the case, it would solve this matter if they did.

  7. Total hypocrisy from the BBC, who have themselves published Ardin's name in the past: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/mundo/cartas_desde_cuba/2011/02/no_es_para_menos.html