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The brass neck of Julian Assange

This is a cross post by Nick Cohen from The Spectator

On 1 March, the Old Vic theatre in London is hosting the première of Europe’s Last Dictator — a film documenting torture and state-sponsored murder and kidnap in Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus. I don’t know if it looks at the brilliantly subversive Belarus Free Theatre, which has been at the forefront of the dissident movement, but I have been heartened to see British actors — Ian McKellen, Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Samuel West — responding to appeals for solidarity from their fellow performers in Belarus by taking up the cause of the opposition.  Given this admirable record, it is no surprise to learn that Joanna Lumley will be co-hosting the evening at the Old Vic.

It is more of a surprise to learn that standing alongside her will be Julian Assange.

For every example of principled artistic activism one can find, there is a Jemima Khan or Bianca Jagger: preposterous celebs, who insist that Wikileaks is a force for good. Perhaps they are beyond saving, but someone needs to sit down the management of the Old Vic, and explain just how well the ‘freedom fighter’ has fought for freedom in Belarus.

Getting information from the Belarusian security apparatus is a hard task. But here is what we know.

Assange allowed Israel Shamir, a genuinely sinister Holocaust denier, to take unredacted US State Department cables to Belarus. These were pure gold for Lukashenko’s KGB because they contained the names of opposition figures who had spoken to American officials.

Shamir boasted in the far-left US magazine Counterpunch that Wikileaks had ‘revealed how… undeclared cash flows from the US coffers to the Belarus “opposition”.’ (His scare quotes.)

Lukashenko’s goons could not have been more appreciative. Shamir arrived in Belarus shortly after street protests against the dictator’s theft of the rigged 2010 general election. The KGB beat, arrested and imprisoned hundreds of demonstrators. The Belarusian state media said that Shamir had allowed the KGB to ‘show the background of what happened, to name the organizers, instigators and rioters, including foreign ones, without compromise, as well as to disclose the financing scheme of the destructive organizations’.

Among the figures the state press said Wikileaks had ‘exposed’ as America’s collaborators were Andrei Sannikov, widely regarded as the true winner of the election; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary, who died in suspicious circumstances, as Lukashenko’s opponents are wont to do; and Vladimir Neklyayev, a writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who is now under house arrest.

Shamir’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories clearly did not bother Assange — in afurious phone call to the editor of Private Eye Assange claimed that Jewish journalists in Britain, several of whom weren’t Jews at all, were conspiring against him. He has also proved himself a loyal friend to post-communist autocrats — as he showed when he took a job on Russia Today — Putin’s English-language propaganda station.

Meanwhile Wikileaks’ grassing up of the Belarusian opposition is hardly a secret, although Assange tried to cover it up. When reporters and rebellious staff inside Wikileaks protested, Assange tried to pretend that Shamir had never worked for him. Privately Assange told Shamir that he could avoid embarrassment by working under an assumed name. When the BBC’s Panorama revealed Assange’s double-dealing, his lawyers accused the BBC of using stolen documents to expose their client — a priceless accusation for the apostle of openness to level after he had received 250,000 stolen US cables.

In the advance publicity for Europe’s Last Dictator, Ms Lumley says, ‘Like many people in the UK, I had no idea of the oppressive nature of the present administration of Belarus until I was invited to join in a protest about the detention and disappearance of one of that country’s many political prisoners’.

But Assange did know, and his agent still helped the regime.

His brass neck is shocking but not surprising to anyone who has watch his megalomania grow. The behaviour of the organisers is more depressing; a sign of how even intellectuals — or perhaps I should say especially intellectuals — fall for the crass simplifications of the modern media. It is almost a truism now for political commentators say that once a public figure has his or her image established, they can never escape it. Iain Duncan Smith’s inability to shake off the picture of him as a second-rater is the example everyone reaches for.

Less noticed, is the fact that the one simple thing the public thinks it knows about a public figure is invariably wrong. Margaret Thatcher was not always the Iron Lady — she U-turned with abandon. Tony Blair was not a slave to focus groups — if he had been, he would not have committed British troops to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. David Cameron is not always a gentleman — as his yobbish streak shows. And so on.

Wikileaks was once an emancipatory project. I say this with feeling because there’s stuff of mine on the site the libel lawyers tried to ban. But it was corrupted by the infantile leftism of Assange and his creepy collaborators, who worked on the assumption that because Russia and Belarus were anti-western, it was legitimate to hand their secret services news they could use. Brand Assange is the same now as it has always been. They regarded him originally as a force for freedom and openness and cannot handle the knowledge that he has helped dictatorial and closed regimes

The presumption of Assange will be a wonder to behold at the premiere ofEurope’s Last Dictator. More wondrous still will be the gullibility of those who invited him.