In a revealing, enthralling and at times explosive lecture at the British Museum on Friday evening, Andrew O’Hagan detailed for the first time his experience as ghostwriter for Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder, O’Hagan told a full house in the final of the London Review of Books’ winter lecture series, may not after all be remembered primarily as a courageous whistleblower or pioneering journalist.
It may turn out that Julian is not Daniel Ellsberg or John Wilkes, but Charles Foster Kane, abusive and monstrous in his pursuit of the truth that interests him, and a man who, it turns out, was motivated all the while not by high principles but by a deep sentimental wound.
O’Hagan, a Scottish novelist and essayist, described a figure whose historic achievements in creating the encrypted site for leakers had become conflated with and corrupted by paranoia, childish tantrums, and a startling absence of self-awareness.
Assange’s account of his own life, as told to O’Hagan, was “infected with his habits of self-regard and truth-manipulation”.
The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses. He didn’t want to do the book. He hadn’t from the beginning.
The composition of the autobiography – which Assange apparently wanted to rank alongside Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and for which he jokingly suggested the working title Ban This Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores – was made a nightmare by “mad unprofessionalism”.
A draft, rejected by Assange, whom O’Hagan judged to have read no more than a few pages, was eventually published in unauthorised form after the relationship between Assange and the publisher Canongate broke down.
Assange had positioned himself “at the centre of a little amateur empire and any professional incursions, from lawyers, from film-makers, from publishers – all of which he had encouraged – were summarily dismissed,” said O’Hagan.
His pride could engulf the room in flames. And if you asked him why he had no experienced people, nobody in their forties or fifties or sixties or seventies working alongside him, authoritative people who might contradict him, he would argue that those people had already been corrupted. I was often the only person over 35 near him, apart from himself, of course, and he didn’t see the problem. He didn’t see the cult-leader aspect.
The heart of O’Hagan’s thesis, however, is probably this:
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the United Kingdom under Thatcher and Blair, those of us who lived through the Troubles and the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the deregulation of the City, and Iraq, believed that exposing secret deals and covert operations would prove a godsend. When WikiLeaks began this process in 2010, it felt, to me anyhow, but also to many others that this might turn out to be the greatest contribution to democracy since the end of the Cold War. A new kind of openness suddenly looked possible: technology might allow people to watch their watchers, at last, and to inspect the secrets being kept, supposedly in our name, and to expose fraud and exploitation wherever it was encountered in the new media age. It wasn’t a subtle plan but it smacked of the kind of idealism that many of us hadn’t felt for a while in British life, where big moral programmes on the left are thin on the ground. Assange looked like a counter-warrior and a man not made for the deathly compromises of party politics. And he seemed deeply connected to the web’s powers of surveillance and counter-surveillance. What happened, though, is that big government opposition to WikiLeaks’s work – which continues – became confused, not least in Assange’s mind, with the rape accusations against him. It has been a fatal conflation. There’s a distinct lack of clarity in Julian’s approach, a lack that is, I’m afraid, only reinforced by the people he has working with him. Only today, he sent me an email – hearing I was writing this piece – telling me it was illegal for me to speak out without what he called ‘appropriate consultation’ with him. He wrote of his precarious situation and of the FBI investigation into his activities. ‘I have been detained,’ he said, ‘without charge, for 1000 days.’ And there it is, the old conflation, implying that his detention is to do with his work against secret-keepers in America. It is not. He was detained at Ellingham Hall while appealing against a request to extradite him to Sweden to answer questions relating to two rape allegations. A man who conflates such truths loses his moral authority right there: I tried to spell this out to him while writing the book, but he wouldn’t listen, sometimes suggesting I was naive not to consider the rape allegations to have been a ‘honey trap’ set by dark foreign forces, or that the Swedes were merely keen to extradite him to America. Because he has no ability to see through other people’s eyes he can’t see how dishonest this conflation seems even to supporters such as me. It was a trap he built for himself when he refused to go to Sweden and instead went into the embassy of a nation not famous for its respect for freedom of speech. He will always have an answer to these points. But there is no real answer. He made a massive tactical error in not going to Sweden to clear his name.
(The above is pasted from the essay posted on the LRB site, which is longer and differs in various minor respects from the lecture as delivered.)
O’Hagan noted at the start of his talk that part of what drew him to the project was interest in the act of ghostwriting (the lecture was publicised under the header “Julian Assange”; it is presented by the LRB in essay form headed “Ghosting”).
[T]here is something … about the genre, a sense that the world might be more ghosted now than at any time in history. Isn’t Wikipedia entirely ghosted? Isn’t half of Facebook? Isn’t the World Wide Web a new ether, in which we are all haunted by ghostwriters?
And it was in part “a sense of loyalty to my original idea of ghosting”, said O’Hagan, that prevented him from succumbing to the requests that “kept coming about doing a tell-all”.
Why then did O’Hagan finally decide to disclose all of this?
Up to the present moment, I have done nothing to break with him or unsettle him. I have watched the collapse of a dozen good relationships he had and tried to analyse them, assuaging him much more than I probably should have. I resisted him firmly when he overstepped the mark – by telling me, for instance, that all my taped interviews with him should be destroyed – but I tried a different tack from the others, making myself available to him in the belief that he needed someone outside his immediate circle as he attempted to fight the forces that threatened him, including himself, and get back to his work. That is why I took so long to say what I’m saying now: I knew the truth would hurt him because the truth, after all, was not his friend. It takes a bigger person than Julian to see what they did wrong, and many of us, including several of those who stood bail for him, hung back and continued to flatter him with our tolerance. When Jemima Khan publicly broke with him, he didn’t pause to ask why a loyal supporter might become aggrieved; when I raised it with him he simply made a horribly sexist remark.
The lecture, introduced by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, was heckled towards its end by WikiLeaks supporters. Following Assange’s selective and unfair denunciation of his publisher, Canongate chose not to release transcripts that contradicted his claims, and “didn’t retaliate or wound him”, said O’Hagan, prompting an audience member to shout, “You do!”
O’Hagan: “No one wanted to do that.” Audience member: “You do.”
At the lecture’s conclusion the same woman shouted, “This is propaganda … Shame on you!”
Toby Manhire is visiting London on the British High Commission / Financial Times Scholarship, supported by British Airways.