Philip Hensher: Assange thinks truth comes in two forms

 

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there