Most Americans are probably tired by now of hearing about Julian Assange, but those still paying attention to his story could do worse than his interview with David Frost on Al Jazeera.
Now in his early 70s, Frost is one of the most capable interviewers on television today.
Frost gives Assange ample opportunity to answer his thoughtful questions (without badgering or interruption); he makes no effort to moralize or demand apologies; and he is certainly no tabloid schmuck. Instead of prurience, he offers intelligence, wit and — this is the thing that strikes the American viewer most — seriousness. For 24 full minutes. An interview of this length, on these subjects, would probably never make its way into American living rooms; and if it did, who would be watching?
The conversation even turns, at one point, to the question whether Assange is an “anarchist,” a question I explored in a previous post. Their exchange, which starts around 11 minutes in, runs as follows:
Frost: Do you think of yourself- when you see references to yourself as anarchic, or an anarchist, is that an accurate description of what you are?
Assange: No, it’s not at all an accurate description.
Frost: Why not?
Assange: That’s not what we do. We’re an organization that goes about and has a long record all over the world of exposing abuses, by exposing concrete documentation, proof of bad behavior. That’s not anarchy. That’s what people do when they’re civil, is that they engage in organized activity that promotes justice.
Frost: So therefore it’s — in that sense you’re not anarchic because you’re actually, you’re in favor of authority if it’s doing the right thing.
Assange: Correct. Correct.
Frost: You’re not automatically opposed to authority.
Assange: You know, having run an organization I understand the difficulties in building institutions, having a good institution. Institutions are very important. I mean anyone who’s worked in Africa, as I have, knows that successful civil institutions don’t just come from nowhere. It’s a — you’ll find a difference going between particular African countries or European and African countries well, clean roads and so on don’t just come from nowhere. There is an institutional infrastructure behind this. But secret institutions start to become corrupted in their purpose. They’re able to engage in secret plans which would be opposed by the population and carry them out for their own internal purposes. So they’re not performing the function that people demand that they perform.
The conversation moves on from there to the question who Assange considers his real enemies, but to my mind this exchange is the heart of the entire interview. It all turns on Assange’s distinction of anarchy from civility — and the positioning of Wikileaks as organized activity that promotes justice. He is eager to put himself and Wikileaks on the side of good government and the “people,” on the side of civil “institutions” and good “clean roads and so on.” He’s even on the side of “authority,” he assures Frost, if it’s “doing the right thing.”
You can easily imagine how this line of argument — which positions Assange as a member of the fourth estate, and Wikileaks as a watchdog — might play into the defense at a trial for espionage or subversion. Whether these arguments will ever be heard over the shouting and fear-mongering of the politicians, pundits and Palins is another question altogether.