O’Hagan Winter Lecture on Julian Assange

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A personal perspective O’Hagan British Museum Winter Lecture 21st of February 2014.

I had read the book “Julian Assange the Unauthorised Autobiography” in September 2011. In its “Note from the Publisher” they define the book as “the unauthorised first draft”. They also say that on June 7th 2011 “Julian told us he wanted to cancel his contract.” Despite that fact they went ahead and published it. WikiLeaks Editorial by Julian Assange of the 22nd of September 2011 named Andrew O’Hagan as the ghost writer of that draft and stated:

“The draft is published under the title “Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography” – a contradiction in terms. It is a narrative and literary interpretation of a conversation between the writer and me. Although I admire Mr. O’Hagan’s writing, this draft was a work in progress. It is entirely uncorrected or fact-checked by me. The entire book was to be heavily modified, extended and revised, in particular, to take into account the privacy of the individuals mentioned in the book. I have a close friendship with Andrew O’Hagan and he stands by me.”

Well, last night Andrew O’Hagan did not stand by Julian Assange and it was a shock. If what I heard him attempt to deliver with some theatrical flair from the podium (all raised eyebrows, piercing looks, fluctuating voice and carefully delivered jokes at the expense of Julian Assange) was a manifestation of “a close friendship” then Mr O’Hagan lives in a very perverted world, where the meaning of words, his craft, is twisted and turned on its head.

As a WikiLeaks supporter I was so excited to buy the ticket and anticipated a lively QA afterwards where I could maybe attempt to ask some questions, primarily, what did the author think of the WikiLeaks revelations, did he feel at the time or any time after under surveillance (Mark Stevens had at the time described how he felt his house was under surveillance), what security precautions did he have to take in his interview and write up, was he since then in contact with Julian Assange, would he consider a re-write of the book etc, was there anything he had learned from the WikiLeaks Releases that would inspire him to write a book about it? etc.

Several other WikiLeaks supporters I know also joined me and it was with great anticipation I took my seat on the second row of the theatre. I took quick camera shots as the theatre was filling up and chatted to known faces. It was announced that the event had sold out which was surprising as the theatre’s had 323 seat capacity. A friend explained that Winter Lectures were very popular with British Museum members, who received concessions or often free tickets. This therefore, would not be an audience of people who follow the WikiLeaks story and work at length.

Camberbatch awaiting O'Hagan to make an entrance listens to an introduction
Cumberbatch awaiting O’Hagan to make an entrance listens to an introduction

Just before the lecture started, I nearly jumped from my seat as I saw Benedict Cumberbatch, the leading actor of The Fifth Estate, (a Hollywood anti-WikiLeaks propaganda assault) come out from behind the scenes, coatless and alone, sit on the first row, fairly close to the podium, awaiting like the rest of us for the ghost author to make an appearance. What was he doing there, I wondered, and such was my surprise that I immediately thought to share the news with others in twitter. He came out from the same place as the writer, from behind the scenes, not from the audience entrance, being ushered by theatre staff. He was coatless, on a bitterly cold Winter evening, just with a blue shirt on, which prompted me to think that he may have left it behind the scenes. Interestingly, after the lecture he followed quickly on the trail of O’Hagan, both leaving the same way they came. Several “Shame on you” that accompanied them on their way out prompted Cumberbatch to turn around and retort with words lost in the general background noise.

And “Shame on you” was not the only words uttered by supporters in the audience. “Propaganda” “Boo” “It is the same as The Fifth Estate” “Do they give a refund?” were uttered in disgust at what we witnessed. General good manners prevented some from heckling the author further, although it was certain he heard every word.

We never got the chance to ask questions as he fled as soon as he had finished, by which time, I would had many, like:

What was his relationship with Cumberbatch, and why he thought it of interest to perform a character assassination not only on Julian Assange but on every person at WikiLeaks he mentioned in his speech.

It was tragic that one of the stories he used to ridicule WL was the security concerns WikiLeaks had. An incident when Sarah Harrison went out to check the surroundings at the Beccles police station before JA left the car to report at the station was turned by O’Hagan into a huge joke making many of the audience laugh, presenting the security risk to Assange as ludicrous “assassins hiding in the bushes”. How tragic then that the assassin was not “hiding in the bushes” but sitting next to Julian Assange, in plain view, and the smiles and the friendship, the confidences, and the sympathy one would assume a ghost writer would have for the object of his art, were assumed, not genuine nor constant.

What I learned from O’Hagan’s lecture was that he viewed Assange and WikiLeaks staff morally reprehensible with regards to their personal and professional conduct. Oscar Wilde said: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” It was evident that O’Hagan viewed Assange and the other WikiLeaks staff as socially inferior to himself and as people that he disliked. He exaggerated quotes and comments that he had “on tape” to project the message that Julian Assange was also politically incorrect on many morality subjects. He trivialised the role WikiLeaks played in assisting communication channels during the Egyptian revolution by focusing on the way Assange ate chocolate.

He stressed that he kept hours of conversation he had with Assange and WikiLeaks staff recorded on tape. It was unclear whether he has used this material in the book, who was the owner of the content in these tapes, was he going to use the tapes for another book. It was clear though that he kept them in a bank safe. Interesting contradiction.  He writes: “In a bank safe, I have dozens of hours of taped interviews with Assange”. He thought Assange was mad for worrying about personal safety, but he kept JA’s tapes in a safe. He took extraordinary measures for the safety of the tapes, but he showed no concern for the safety of JA. From the references he made to the Swedish case and the risk of US extradition it is clear, he would have handed JA over, dismissing any risk to his person. But the tapes? oh, the tapes were in a safe.

The other matter that was news to me was that he had been given a memory stick with confidential information by Sarah Harrison. It was implied that this was material for researching a different subject matter. He did not specify what that material was.

I was really looking forward to hearing what he had to say about working closely with Julian Assange at a time when WikiLeaks was changing our perception of the world, breaking down barriers of censorship and throwing light to some very murky dealings around the world. The JA/O’Hagan co-operation had failed to bring about the celebrated fruit of their toil. The project had failed artistically, the book started telling a beautiful story, beautifully but soon became rather flat and obviously unfinished. Morally too it had failed, as the contract arrangements no longer reflected a fair deal and created the strongest reactions with recriminations from both Publisher and Julian Assange. Commercially, it had also failed, after the public disowning of the book by Assange and advise to not buy it.

Revenge is a dish served cold and O’Hagan’s lecture that I attended last night as part of the British Museum Winter Lecture series certainly fully embodies such expression. What his motivation would be for this, I do not know. The presence of Benedict Cumberbatch on front row, the references to Jemima Khan and the Guardian, gave the impression among supporters that he wished to ingratiate himself with a set of people he feels he belongs. A social set apart and above WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, a set that is efficient, professional and played by the rules, a set which is part of the establishment and is rewarded by it.

But the establishment of today is in the History cabinet of tomorrow. The tomorrow that is being built today is full of Cables, War Logs, Surveillance presentations, prisoner files documenting unfair captures, stories of subversion of democracy and human rights, of corruption. It does not include fingernail clippings, swearwords or the minute examination of feet of clay that we all possess as humans. Remarkable how far such feet have travelled in the story of WikiLeaks and how much good they have produced. If Mr O’Hagan wants to write about fingernail clippings, he chooses for himself his place in the History cabinet, or maybe he can follow those clippings, in the bin where they naturally belong.