It's good to get out of the house, Assange tells Cambridge Union

He has perfected the art of spilling other people's secrets, but Julian Assange's appearance last night at the Cambridge Union Society (CUS) was a far from transparent affair.

The layers of security surrounding the talk – his first public appearance since last month losing round one of his battle against extradition to Sweden – were so tight that the US State Department might have learned a thing or two about how to control the flow of information. Pasted on the walls outside the debating chamber were stern warnings to any students intending to live stream the contents of the WikiLeaks founder's lecture. "It is illegal to film, photograph, or record," the signs read. "You will be evicted and have your membership revoked."

Student journalists from the university's two papers were permitted to attend. But national media were told they were barred from the lecture, which was both a defence of WikiLeaks and a detailed account of what Mr Assange claimed was his organisation's crucial role in sparking pro-democracy protests in the Middle East.

Referring to the fruit-seller from Tunisia who set himself alight in protest at government corruption, Mr Assange said: "His act took what was an online [campaign] about what was happening in Tunisia and expressed it in physical form. The cables showed the US would support the military over the Tunisian regime. This changed the dynamic between reformists and regimists."

In front of a packed debating chamber, Mr Assange expressed fears that cyberspace had its limits and was used by repressive states to monitor opposition voices as much as it is to leak important information. "While the internet has a massive power to hold government to account, it is also the greatest spying machine ever made," he said. "It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech."

At the start of his speech, however, Mr Assange, who is under strict bail conditions, had expressed misgivings about the restriction on reporting. "It seems to me that their restriction on recording is a bit rough, but I support it to a degree," he said. "Otherwise it would have become a press conference." In a reference to his bail conditions he remarked that it was good "to get out of the house".

One of the country's most famous debating chambers, the CUS has hosted Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama and Ronald Reagan. "Sometimes we let the press in but most of the time we don't" said CUS president Lauren Davidson. "We are a private members' club, and we aim to give our members the opportunity to engage with the most interesting and influential figures in today's society," she added. When asked whether Mr Assange himself had asked for a media blackout, Ms Davidson replied: "It is a decision we made together."

Among the audience members, themselves, opinions of Mr Assange were sharply divided. "Overall I think what he's done is remarkable," said Jonathan Lee, a 20-year-old maths student from Trinity College. "I think he's shown us that governments try to keep vast amounts of information secret and that most of it should be out in public."

Mr Lee had barely finished speaking when his friend, 18-year-old law student Chris Monk, replied: "Oh come on, most of the stuff that was released we already knew about. And you can't disagree with the idea that some information needs to be kept secret. I mean, what possible good was there in releasing that list of top terrorist targets?"

Others expressed concern about Mr Assange's personal transparency.

"I respect him as a person, for what he has done and what WikiLeaks has published," said Robin McGhee, a 19-year-old Oxford student who lives in Cambridge. "But as someone who stands for openness and transparency, I have serious reservations about how closed he is about his own story."

Mr Assange – a 39-year-old Australian-born former hacker – is appealing against an English magistrate's decision to extradite him to Sweden to answer accusations that he sexually assaulted two women last year.

Mr Assange denies the allegations and says the charges against him are part of a wider political conspiracy to silence his organisation's whistle-blowing activities.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas