Philip Hensher: Assange thinks truth comes in two forms


Anonymous, the internet activists' slogan, runs "Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us!"

Plenty of people agree with this in principle. Knowledge is free and without constraint, and should be made universally available. Restrictions placed on knowledge and truth by authorities, corporations or individuals are by their nature abhorrent, and activists can circumvent petty restrictions by flooding the public arena with raw information.

The free flow of unmediated information was the principle on which WikiLeaks was founded by Julian Assange in 2007. It made available huge volumes of data on individual cases, including torture, war, and the secret conduct of corporations and religions, including Scientology – a recurrent object of fascination of this sort of activist. Some of WikiLeaks' publications were of clear public interest, such as the manual of operations of Guantanamo Bay. Others, of great curiosity, such as their publication of thousands of private text messages sent on the morning of 11 September 2001, have a less obvious public-interest defence.

From the first, WikiLeaks faced attacks from lawyers claiming ownership of and control over information published by the website. It was possible, in the early days, to regard the tussle as one between people who wanted to own and control information for infamous purposes, and an organisation that believed that the truth was owned by nobody, and could only be a force for good. Just how inadequate that characterisation was has become clear over time. Crucially, as the information which is argued over moves from paper to online resource, and back again into old media, on paper or between hard covers, we start to wonder whether the ownership of information can ever be abandoned.

Julian Assange, in December last year, signed a contract with the publisher Canongate to write his autobiography, to be ghosted by the novelist Andrew O'Hagan. Over three months and tens of hours of recorded conversation, Assange set out his account, including the founding of WikiLeaks and the events surrounding the accusations of rape made against him by two Swedish women. The recordings were turned into a book by Mr O'Hagan with, by all accounts, great speed and professional skill.

At this point, questions of ownership began to arise. Mr Assange had sought a clause in his contract saying that he would be paid £125,000 whether he delivered a manuscript or not. Canongate rightly laughed this suggestion off the table, and included a clause which would give it the right to decide, alone, whether or not to publish the memoir. A first draft was shown to Canongate. However, in the months that followed, Assange refused to agree to this as a publishable text. Canongate discovered the advance paid was unrecoverable, ringfenced to pay Assange's legal costs. It decided to publish the material in its possession. Assange, in a remarkably self-justifying statement considering that he was proposing to take Canongate's money and give it nothing in return, said it was "preventing me from exercising my rights as the copyright holder, denying me and many others of market opportunity for the book I wished to publish, and depriving me of the earnings I would eventually have made".

Much comment has been made on the interesting irony that Assange, once a proponent of the free flow of information without ownership or restraint, is now seeking to suppress his own autobiography, based on his own recorded words. But Assange has definite form in this area. The editors of newspapers in three countries were astonished when, after having based stories on material obtained by WikiLeaks, they were faced with claims by Assange that he actually owned the material. Assange told a UK newspaper that the information in documents concerning Iraq they were proposing to publish was private property, and that publication would affect him financially.

One thing is absolutely clear. Information may be information, whatever the form it takes, but the necessity for its free flow stops being so obvious when it moves from the new media to the old. It is, apparently, obvious to Assange that when information is going to be conveyed on paper, whether in a newspaper or a book, it should be limited and controlled by ownership in ways that date back centuries. On WikiLeaks' own principles, the publication of Assange's memoir without his permission would be justified even if he did not earn any money from it. His view of his own situation is of clear public interest. The question of his own copyright in his writings is one that WikiLeaks in the past has ignored in publishing other public figures' writings – Sarah Palin's emails, for instance. If Assange was serious about putting documents of public interest in the public domain, then he would circumvent Canongate and place his autobiography online for any interested reader to download.

But surely we can all welcome Assange's conversion to the cause of the ownership of information. He clearly understands that information, when produced in the form of old media – books and newspapers – has to be exploited by ownership, or it will simply not emerge at all. No newspapers, no scoops; no advances and royalties, no books. It seems strange to hold the idea of two forms of information in one's head, which should either be freely circulated or tightly controlled, depending on what medium it takes its form in. Perhaps Assange might start to think about whether he is entirely serious about riding roughshod over other people's ownership of knowledge, information and documents. It couldn't be, could it, that he thinks it was OK to publish Sarah Palin's private emails, because they were by Sarah Palin; but, conversely, all right to withdraw his own memoir, pocketing the advance regardless, because it's by him. It's bad enough to think there are different ethical rules of engagement for publication on paper and on the internet, but to presume there are different rules for yourself and for everyone else is a belief most people have grown out of by the age of eight.