Free speech is the courage to burn bridges

The year 2015 has begun with a great deal of debate about free speech. The fanatics who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw to that—their sympathisers in Copenhagen have kept the fire burning.

The discussion has largely been about what one can say about your ideological opponents. Is it Okay to blaspheme? What are the limits to giving offence? When does criticism of one group or another slide into hate speech and incitement. In these examples we usually debate whether the law can interfere with our speech.

It’s worth noting that other kinds of free speech dilemmas exist. An important example of this is on show in Peter Oborne’s seething explanation for why he resigned from the Daily Telegraph.
Continue reading “Free speech is the courage to burn bridges”

Discrediting Assange

Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay on the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is quite something. Hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, O’Hagan spent many months with the hacker while he was on bail and living in a country house in Norfolk. The essay describes Julian Assange’s erratic, selfish and sometimes delusional personality that caused the book project to wither.

I’ve heard some people call the essay ‘a hatchet job’ but it is more subtle than that. The piece seethes and scathes, but I don’t detect a sneer or anything to suggest that it seeks to pull Julian Assange down a peg.

Rather, its a literary catharsis. O’Hagan is a man squeezed between the exasperating Assange and the bolshy publisher Jamie Byng, a position he clearly finds deeply uncomfortable. The story reads as incredibly sincere, which also makes it credible and compelling.

There’s no doubt that O’Hagan’s essay zips up the body bag on Assange’s already brutalised reputation. His protagonist (for, by the end, Assange has become a character, a ‘cipher’) is unquestionably the author of his own downfall. Nevertheless, there remains a certain unease in the fact that this essay has been published in the same week as some more damning revelations about the practices of GCHQ.

Writing on First Look Media’s Interceptor blog, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who took receipt of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents) exposes the paychological techniques deployed by our the security services. His article is titled ‘How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations’ and presents leaked GCHQ slides that describe the techniques used by JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). The group allegedly deploys techniques developed by behavioural scientists to break up political groups that they perceive to be a threat to national security. They use agents provocateurs, False Flag operations, and even ruin business and personal relationships through the hacking of social media and e-mail accounts. ‘Honey Traps’ are also mentioned.

Its impossible to know which, if any, of these techniques have been used against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but I don’t think it would be particularly outlandish or paranoid to imagine that the group have been the target of this sort of action. I don’t know how the public, and targets of such covert government attacks, can counter the misinformation… But I do know that Assange’s chaotic response, and his decision to avoid the chance to clear his name, is not the way to go about it.

Protect whistleblowers to protect the leaks

If O’Hagan’s account is to be believed (and the hours of tape recordings lends weight to his account) then Julian Assange is actually quite careless with the sensitive data he handles. In an op-ed in the Independent, my colleague Mile Harris points out that this is a reason to protect and encourage whistleblowers. Far better that those who handle leaked information treat it with care. By aggressively prosecuting the act of whistleblowing, we ensure that future leakers are likely to be in the Assange mould—unreliable and careless.

Discussing Assange in Politiken

I was quoted in the Danish newspaper Politiken yesterday, commenting on Julian Assange’s choice to seek political asylum in Ecuador (or at least, its London Embassy):

»Det kan virke som et lidt … bizart valg, når man ser på Ecuadors egen situation på området for ytringsfrihed«, siger kommunikationsdirektør Robert Sharp fra English PEN: »Det er mildest talt ikke et land, der normalt er kendt for at gå i brechen for ytringsfrihed«, siger Robert Sharp.

Essentially:  Its a bizarre choice when you look at Ecuador’s record on free expression issues.  At the very least, its not a country that has a reputation for standing up for free expression.