Christina Patterson: How a prophet of protest lost the moral plot

Julian Assange has just revealed more of himself than was wise

I probably shouldn't have laughed, but I'm afraid I did. It was the moment when he said that women had been "extremely helpful and generous". Being "helpful and generous" in WikiWorld meant, it soon became clear, a range of supportive activities, from the secretarial to the – well, I'm far too much of a lady to spell it out.

And Julian Assange, it seemed, was far too much of a gentleman. Asked by John Humphrys on yesterday's Today programme to throw a little light on the sexual behaviour that has garnered him a "hi-tech" house arrest, a request for extradition, and, according to his own account, 30 million web pages, Assange declared that it was "private business". To the question that got the Deputy Prime Minister a nickname that was rather hard to shake off, he replied that "a gentleman certainly doesn't count". The women, that is, not the mentions on Google. One thing, however, was clear. The fearless crusader for truth and transparency was slightly less relaxed when the free information being sought was about him.

He also seemed a little confused. When Humphrys asked if there was "any truth" in the sexual allegations made by the two women in Sweden, which largely amount to non-consensual sex without a condom, he said "no". Asked if he denied having sex with the women, he also said "no". Asked if it was "a honey-trap", he said that he had "never said" it was. But then he said that he had "never said" it wasn't. It was a bit like having a conversation with Paul the Octopus. You only hoped that, in the grand country house where the interview was taking place, some less gnomic answers were being conveyed by those languid limbs.

On certain things, he was clear. It was, he said, "ridiculous" that the women had gone to the police. The women, he said, had "gone into a tizzy" about whether there was "a possibility of sexually transmitted diseases". A "tizzy", presumably, because a man who had found so many women so helpful and generous, and who, if the women are right about his lack of enthusiasm for a condom, may well have been enjoying widespread freedom of access without the barriers that only prosaic mortals impose. A "tizzy", therefore, that a brief encounter, and one which, on one occasion, according to the allegations, happened when one of the women wasn't actually awake to give her consent to it, might leave rather a long-standing mark. I don't know what other women thought when they heard this man dismiss the allegations of a couple of distraught women with such casual contempt. To me, it was evident that this was a man so convinced of his probity that he couldn't believe that any woman, anywhere, could ever find his approach to sexual mores anything other than helpful and generous.

He couldn't believe that the Swedish legal system could, either. When asked why he wouldn't go back to Sweden to face the allegations, he said that the Swedish authorities could come to England, or they could do "a video link up" or "accept a statement". The mountain, in other words, should come to Mohammed. "I have," he said, "a serious organisation to run. I have my people to defend... My work," he said, unlike everyone else's, clearly, "is serious".

Well, you can say that again. It is certainly serious to decide that every piece of information relating to every government everywhere needs to be made available to everyone all the time. It is certainly serious, if a little confusing, to say that WikiLeaks is an organisation that "does not promote leaking" and that Sweden, that bastion of social democracy and fairness, is "a bit more of a banana republic", and that the sexual allegations made by two women whose lives have been made a misery have been "quite helpful" for your organisation, because they will "expose a tremendous abuse of power", and that you are "in a very beneficial position" if you can be "martyred without dying".

It is certainly serious, because Julian Assange appears to be deadly serious about every single aspect of it, and every single aspect of his life and work. He appears, in fact, to be a man unencumbered by even a shadow of a sense of humour, or the tiniest flicker of a doubt.

He's a man who believes that the world "has a lot of problems" which need to be fixed, and that he is the man to fix them. He's a man who claims to have had no time to think about how he perceives himself, but when given the chance, in solitary confinement, he looked upon his creation and saw that it was good.

He is, in other words, a fundamentalist and, like many other fundamentalists, accountable only to a higher truth. Like all fundamentalists, he has his followers and they, whatever the evidence, will continue to believe what they want.

Some fundamentalists sometimes do some good. Julian Assange may have sometimes done some good. But I wouldn't trust him with a barge-pole, or a condom.

When John met Julian: The 'Today' interview

Excerpts from the interview on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme yesterday:

On extradition

John Humphrys Why can't you go back to Sweden?

Julian Assange I don't need to go back to Sweden.

JH You do, because the law says you must.

JA Well no, the law says that I also have certain rights. I do not need to go and speak to random prosecutors around the world who simply want to have a chat...

JH But they don't just want to have a chat, do they?

JA No, they do.

JH That rather belittles what this is all about. Very serious allegations have been made...

JA I have already spoken to them.

On privacy

JA I am not going to be exposing other people's private lives or my own more than is absolutely necessary. That is not what a gentleman does...

On the complaints against him

JH One of those women at least did make a complaint against you.

JA Not even a complaint. It appears, from the records that we do have, the suggestion is that they went to the police for advice and they did not want to make a complaint. What they say is that they found out that they were mutual lovers of mine and they had undertaken sex and they got into a tizzy about whether there was a possibility of sexually transmitted diseases. They went to the police to...

JH They wanted you to have a test as well.

JA ... to have a test.

JH Did you have a test?

JA Ridiculous thing to go to the police about.

On his sex life

JH Are you a sexual predator?

JA That's ridiculous. Of course not.

JH How many women have you slept with?

JA That's a private business. Not only does a gentleman not tell... a gentleman certainly doesn't count.

JH Many, without being specific?

JA I've never had a problem before with women. Women have been extremely helpful and generous.