Strange Days, Indeed

Scenes from Julian Assange's WikiCircus in London.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Julian Assange won two victories in London today. First, of course, there was the matter of his bail, which was granted by a British judge — pending an appeal by the Swedish government, which wants to extradite Assange on sexual assault charges. The Wikileaks founder surrendered himself to police a week ago, and has been in jail since.

His second victory, however, may have been more important, if less tangible. I witnessed it a few minutes before 3:30 p.m., Greenwich mean time, outside the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where I was uncomfortably squeezed amid dozens of news photographers, reporters, and producers from around the world — representatives of the old media in all its myriad forms. Suddenly a great whooping went up from a huddle of the Assange faithful across the street, penned in by wary police officers and metal barricades.”He got bail!” someone shouted.

This was the news everyone had been waiting for — and it came not from any of the media organizations camped outside the courthouse perimeter, but from one of the twentysomething demonstrators following the court proceedings via Twitter on a mobile phone. As soon as the cheers quieted, a TV newsman turned to face the camera and relayed the news, citing Twitter as his source. The implication couldn’t have been clearer if Assange himself had scripted it: The WikiLeaks model of information distribution — an unmediated firehose, arriving via many outlets and with zero vetting — had triumphed. The old media, as it had been since WikiLeaks first began dumping heaps of U.S. government documents into the public domain this summer, was adrift in a world suddenly run by computer science majors.

I had arrived at the courthouse — arguably the least architecturally impressive one in London, located between Westminster Cathedral and the Thames — a few minutes after noon to find the hearing room already packed. “You could do something to get extradited,” a television cameraman cheerfully suggested, when I asked how to get inside. “Or show up drunk.” The press photographers, with their cigarettes, tiny coffee cups, and North Face jackets, lined up in the middle of Horseferry Road, facing the courthouse. They were joined at first by just a handful of protesters; many more arrived later, after the police finished barricading both sides of the road, segregating the press on the north side from the protest on the south side.

Aside from the few protesters who’d shown up early, the dozens of reporters on hand had no one to interview and no pictures to take. Out of habit, the journalists shoved and jostled one another. It was, as one newswoman put it, “a shit fight — a quality shit fight.” Throughout the afternoon, I watched TV reporters perform multiple takes of the same stand-up, dutifully reporting the non-news in various languages. The sign-offs, invariably, went something like this: “One thing is clear: the intense worldwide media interest in the case of Julian Assange will continue. His fate, however, is unknown.”

There was some jealous grumbling that the Sunshine Coast Daily, a 22,000-circulation paper in Queensland, Australia, had scooped the world by publishing Assange’s statement from jail. Rubbing salt in the wound, one of the paper’s reporters had apparently accompanied Assange’s mother into the courtroom. Outside, everyone else waited amid the millions of dollars of broadcasting equipment. “This is really when you want to have Twitter,” a TV reporter said to her camera-toting colleague. “To know what’s going on.”

In the information-starved environment of a media scrum, the arrival of an important-looking outsider can spark a stampede. Twice I was nearly crushed by the camera mob as it swarmed around a person entering the courtroom. Once, I recognized the face at the center of the scrum: John Pilger, the documentary filmmaker who has made himself an apostle of Assange’s information revolution. (“That mindset that only authority can really determine the truth on the news, that’s a form of embedding that really now has to change,” he told a reporter elsewhere on Tuesday.) It was an odd sight: News organizations that could no longer properly fund a bureau in Baghdad throwing their limited resources at a mad scramble for soundbites from a man predicting their extinction.

Occasionally, protesters tried to take advantage of the information vacuum. At one point, a man wearing a police-style fluorescent vest — stamped instead with “POLITE” across the back — planted himself next to the wall of photographers and began rambling into a bullhorn. After the real police shooed him from the sidewalk, he began heckling the media from across the street.

“Look at all these press people!” he said. “Highly intelligent people, afraid to say what they really think!”

He was half right — at least there was more life on the protesters’ side of Horseferry Road. The crowd numbered a few dozen and was notably younger and more bohemian than the relatively straight-laced press pack. The protesters’ chants — “Exposing war crimes is no crime!” “Free Julian now!” — provided the afternoon’s only soundtrack. Their signs variously labeled Assange “Australian of the year,” a “political prisoner,” and the personification of “truth.”

It was an item of gospel truth among the pro-Assange demonstrators that the charges against him, based on the testimony of two women in Sweden who wound up in bed with him (separately) after a seminar last December, were part of a conspiracy of one sort or another. “I strongly believe this man is innocent,” declared David McCann, a self-described independent protester who was standing alone at the courthouse when I arrived.

“I’ll tell you, it’s the Freemasons,” McCann added, growing more animated. “They’re all ganging up on him.” Shutting down Wikileaks was just the beginning, he explained; the Freemasons were out to control the whole Internet. This was why he didn’t have faith in the traditional news media: “Because a great many of the proprietors are Freemasons,” he said with authority.

McCann’s lecture was soon interrupted by a policeman, who grabbed him by the arm and shoved him down the length of the sidewalk, away from the courthouse. Later, I found him across the street, giving interviews. “He just ripped the button off my jacket,” he was telling two cameramen. “Twisted my ankle.” A man who’d been listening to McCann handed me his high-end digital camera and asked if I would take his picture with the protester. “I’m a journalist,” he told me when I returned his camera. He said he’d come all the way from Libya.

As the afternoon wore on, the protest gained numbers but lost energy. I came upon a demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, signaling his allegiance to Anonymous, the online hackers’ community that launched Operation Payback, a campaign of retribution for the attempts to stifle WikiLeaks. “I think it is a complete setup,” he said of Assange’s charges. The timing “just seems a bit too dodgy,” he said, “and we Anonymous think so as well.” A young Austrian woman arrived with a sign that read: “Assange: Honey Trapped In Sweden.” Another protester carried a hand-written cardboard sign that said, simply, “I am Assange.” I didn’t quite understand the symbolism of the blindfold he was wearing.

For good, or more likely ill, Assange and his organization are now at the center of what could become a defining First Amendment case, if its protagonist is ever extradited and charged in the United States. But it is awfully difficult to find any heroes in this story. WikiLeaks is shady, unethical, and amoral; its enemies in the United States and other governments aren’t much better. And the crowd chanting “Free Julian!” outside the courthouse and the media dutifully recording it from across the street seemed to encapsulate the new, fragmented information landscape in which this drama is unfolding: No one knew the whole story, and many of them wouldn’t have been much interested in it if they had found it, preferring their own version of the events at hand. The WikiLeaks faithful brought a lot of signs to the protest, but none of them were particularly hopeful.

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