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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Why do we buy Julian Assange's one-man psychodrama?

The Ecuador government will be a laughing stock if it takes the Assange death penalty sub-plot seriously

Narcissism is the curse of our age. Celebrity is its more familiar manifestation, spawning countless magazines and TV shows, but its tentacles have spread into every area of public life. France has recently terminated an unhappy experiment with a hyperactive President, suggesting that its appetite for constant self-promotion has its limits. Now a similar proposition is being tested in the UK by the saga of the celebrity-hacker, Julian Assange.

The news that the increasingly eccentric founder of WikiLeaks had sought political asylum in Knightsbridge, of all places, was greeted with equal measures of disbelief and hilarity. The London embassy of Ecuador is convenient for Harrods, although I don't imagine that was a major consideration when Assange walked into the building on Tuesday afternoon. His line is that he has been "abandoned" by his home country, Australia, which has failed to protect him from the threat of extradition to the US and the death penalty. The Australian government has a different story, but it's all part of Assange's riveting psychodrama, in which this fearless champion of human rights has been kept under "house arrest" without charge in the UK for 500 days. That is what Assange told Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, in a rambling TV interview last month.

The super-hacker appears to be relaxed about links with authoritarian regimes, presenting a chat show for Russia Today, a state-funded TV network, and seeking asylum in a Latin American country with a not exactly admirable record on freedom of expression. Assange quickly established a rapport with Correa, who teased him during the interview, waved a book about WikiLeaks and addressed him warmly as "Julian". I've seldom seen such a feeble interrogation, but it did at least put paid to the risible notion that Assange is a journalist.

Now how can I put this politely? Assange is a fabulist, someone who stretches and distorts the truth to make himself look exciting in the eyes of his diminishing band of followers. He has never been under house arrest in this country, although his bail conditions, which he has now breached, require him to stay at the same address every night. He makes much of the fact that he hasn't been charged with any offence in Sweden, but that is because he has employed every trick in the book to avoid going back to answer serious allegations of sexual misconduct. The Swedish authorities have accused him of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one of rape, and they've been trying to question him for almost two years.

Assange's supporters claim that the case is simply an excuse to get him back to Sweden, which will then allow the wicked American government to cart him off and execute him for sedition. This scenario might be less fanciful if the UK didn't have its own extradition treaty with the US, and one which is repeatedly accused of being much too "soft". In an era when conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on the internet, the death penalty sub-plot has proved a useful diversionary tactic, but the government of Ecuador will be a laughing stock if it takes it seriously.

Narcissists are shameless in their promotion of themselves, but they aren't noted for consistency. Assange's politics are simplistic, amounting to not much more than a belief that governments cheat and lie and need to be exposed. They do, sometimes, but his preferred scenario of total transparency would be a nightmare, making relations between democratic countries and despotic regimes even more difficult. He doesn't understand power, which can be exercised for good as well as selfish reasons, and by individuals – himself included – as well as governments.

It's time his double standards were spelled out: Assange has used his hacking skills to turn himself into a worldwide phenomenon, and now he demands for himself exactly the same impunity he excoriates in politicians. The British courts are having none of it, and his latest stunt suggests he believes he'd get short shrift at the European Court, always assuming he could afford to go there.

Without coherent politics to explain his predicament, Assange has had to rely on two things: the gullibility of people who share his Manichean world view and a yearning for heroes. But even his most ardent fans are likely to have been startled by his casual disregard for the supporters who put up thousands of pounds in bail, and who were waiting yesterday to hear whether they're going to lose their money. Selfishness is at the heart of narcissism but the public is willing to read it as something else, as long as the individual concerned doesn't overstep the mark as Assange has done with this latest escapade.

Recently, even his singular appearance has started to work against him. He's put on weight, his face is puffy and he didn't bother to shave before his interview with Correa. The super-hacker is losing his glamour, and he's reached the moment when psychodrama tips into farce. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this superb vignette: the people's champion, shopping for human rights near Harrods.