Julian Assange is in exile
Grand exile, to be sure, in a country mansion, the home of his friend Vaughan Smith. But exile nonetheless – miles from the nearest city (Norwich is 15 miles away, London – a good three hour drive), living in someone else’s house, isolated, with a staff that didn’t realise residing in sleepy Norfolk would be part of the deal when they signed up.
The house is old-money shabby – large, full of antiques, but could do with a lick of paint. There’s a trampoline in the garden, but Assange doesn’t seem in any mood to bounce on it.
We were asked to arrive an hour ahead of the scheduled start-time, to set up our equipment. This we duly did, but 3pm came and went, with no sign of Assange.
Then we caught sight of a figure in the garden. It was Julian – alone, in a dark blue suit, his hair, now white again, ruffled by the wind. Clutching a sheaf of papers, he stalked away from the house, towards a lake. For the next 30 minutes, he appeared and disappeared from view, always striding, deep in concentration, and although I was too far away to see, I’m pretty sure he was talking to himself. I realised he was rehearsing his answers.
He’s become more camera conscious, to the point of suspicion. A friend advised him to apply a touch of make-up before interviews, to avoid media speculation that he’s ill. He’s got a beard, and he was worried if his hair was too neat, it wouldn’t go with the designer stubble. He meticulously checked the shot our cameras would be recording, and questioned whether there was enough light, much to the (well-hidden) chagrin of my cameraman. I had given him an idea of my questions, on his request, and he had written out pre-prepared answers. He accused me of being hostile, still surprised after the hundreds of interviews he’s done that journalists would want to ask probing questions.
He’s tense during interviews, and speaks deliberately slowly, wary of saying something he might regret. But immediately it’s over, he visibly relaxes, and when talking about the mechanics of WikiLeaks vs. OpenLeaks (his former employee’s new whistleblowing site), he became truly animated – much more like the Assange I remember meeting a year ago, when I first interviewed him; back when the Swedish rape allegations were still in the future, and the threat of extradition wasn’t hanging over him.
He’s immensely proud of his work – before I left he showed me headlines from his latest leaks on India. “Look what we’ve done to India,” he said, as he thrust a pile of newspapers into my arms, detailing WikiLeaks’ exposure of corruption, greed and US influence at the heart of the country’s political establishment. But he refused to say whether he’d be going after the banking community next. He will neither confirm nor deny that Rudolf Elmer gave him information on Swiss banking cover-ups, despite a triumphal press conference at which he appeared to do just that, some months ago.
Assange says he wants to do something extraordinary with his life. It’s hard to imagine that he will ever lead an ordinary life, no matter what happens with the rape allegations and extradition process. But he probably wasn’t ordinary before this all began, and he seems to be fuelled by the idea that he’s doing work that benefits humanity. If that was to be taken away, I wouldn’t like to imagine what would happen. But while it remains, he looks able to draw on it to overcome the huge pressure he’s under.
Laura Emmett, RT