As I was leaving the Festival of Dangerous Ideas‘ satellite link-up-up with Julian Assange last night at Sydney Opera House, I heard an Irishman say: “So much time wasted with irrelevant stuff… CUT TO THE CHASE!”, and I couldn’t resist adding my 10 cents worth:
“The Opera House filtered the questions; I’ll remind you of that.” He looked surprised and then, as if the penny dropped, said: “Yeah, you’re right!”.
The Sydney Opera House, venue for the 2011 ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’, had announced but three days before, with a 27-hour window of opportunity, for its 5000 attendees to submit their questions by email, since they couldn’t be taken live due to the satellite connection. Hadn’t anyone there heard of an audio mixer? I was lucky enough to catch the notification in time, but many didn’t.
It came as good news that the presentation would be split in half: Julian’s talk; then a generous 30 minutes for questions. What became quickly evident however and also made me scratch my head, was that the satellite transmission was running on a 7 second delay, with ABC host Fran Kelly trying to explain that: “Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, is a very long way away… “.
It began thus:
[Audience cheers when Assange's name is mentioned; 'Woohoo!" when he appears onscreen]
Fran Kelly: “So over to you……………………..”
[Audience laughter at the extraordinarily long (satellite) delay]
Assange: It is heartening to me to hear that kind of response in Australia. The Australian public and its support of our work is really something that keeps us going. The reaction in Washington and London is really very different, and that’s something I’d like to explore a little bit; about how different nationalities and different States have viewed our work and reacted to it.
“310 days ago I was in Wandsworth Prison in Windsor, in London. I was placed into the basement, into the separation unit; kept away from all other prisoners, confined to myself 24 hours a day, and during that time I had a moment to reflect…”
“We had a whole lot of government task forces in Australia set up against us – publicly declared – involving the AFP, ASIS ASIO, the Department of Defence and the Attorney General; looking in to whether there was any way to stop what we were doing; whether we had committed criminal offences in Australia… and that swift reaction by the Australian Government was only stopped, ONLY stopped by the Australian population and by our friends in the Australian media.”
“Left to its own devices, the Australian Government / the Australian Labour Cabinet would have done everything in its power to see me and other people working with me shipped off to the United States.”
Assange shows us “some 270 pages released…” about Wikileaks staff by the Australian Government to the US State Department before Cablegate. He says they were obtained via FOI request, but the pages are about 75% blacked out.
Rolls of laughter from the audience and quite a bit of chatter… “This is your Government”.
Assange goes on to say that 1% of the American population has signed a secrecy agreement; a total of 3 million people who are not allowed to talk about what they are doing. It sounds familiar to Australians. Some of our government workers are not allowed to talk to each other, starting with people in other departments, about internal affairs. At one of our largest media organisations, you can’t connect to the internet from inside the building – to stop that kind of caper from happening – and they send a supervisor to tell the journalists what to write. That was the experience of this reporter when she was hired to train staff there.
I find it sad to contemplate this bottle-neck of blur, where people are not supposed to think for themselves or communicate their opinions to others; this absurd “don’t ask, don’t tell” framework that fosters confusion and disinformation by default, unintentionally. What’s also sad is that the recording of this “dangerous” event has disappeared from public view. A source close to Wikileaks later stated that Assange’s contract to speak at the Sydney Opera House had barred him from ‘appearing’ anywhere else in Australia for months prior to the event. Only on the night would he be able to battle misinformation and perhaps ‘shine a light’…
Assange tells us that America is run by a “Shadow Government” that involves both corporate sponsorship and collaboration. He cites Paypal, Mastercard and Bank of America’s extra-judicial blockage of Wikileaks revenue, to the tune of about $AU 30 million, but when asked, he passes on complaining about media-orchestrated calls for his assassination.
The nexus of power of the Shadow Government, Assange asserts, exists above government and brazenly so at times, outside of the rule of law. In the US, one can’t run for election without access to such sponsorship. He explains further, how this Shadow Government extends its existence and imposes its will across many other countries – and right into our pockets in the form of a credit card. “Yikes”, from someone nearby breaks the silence in the house.
Assange’s speech concludes on a note of optimism: the whistle blowing will continue even if Wikileaks doesn’t. The capacity crowd is stirring now at the prospect of their questions being selected. ABC’s Fran Kelly is onstage to read them out, but she starts with her own rather long-winded one, which essentially portrays Wikileaks as tragically dead meat.
Julian gets a laugh with his response, describing Wikileaks as “A rather big boat with a lot of torpedo holes in it” which is still… “drifting along”. Later he jovially slips in the word “Titanic” to describe governments, challenging the notion of “too big to fail”.
Fran Kelly went on to the selected questions, asking Assange up front about facing the “charges” in Sweden. It was an embarrassing mistake which Julian corrected, informing her that there were no charges. He also had to remind Kelly that the un-redacted State Department Cables had been released, and were viewable by everyone on Cryptome.org or downloadable as a torrent on the Pirate Bay before Wikileaks re-published them.
The Opera House’s selection of questions was not much appreciated. They were too generalist for that audience and made them groan and heckle at times. They ranged from valid to misinformed, antagonistic, redundant – there were two questions about harming informants – and irrelevant, with “too much time wasted” on the latter, like the Irishman said. “Why don’t you accept extradition to the US and stare out your accusers?” was met with multiple outbursts from the audience of: “That’s a stupid question”…
Julian’s forthright and clarifying responses were warmly applauded, as was his announcement that Wikileaks still don’t have “blood on their hands”. But what seemed to please most was the moment when Kelly tried stop his “CUT TO THE CHASE”.
At one point Assange went on a roll of “live leaks”, citing important but dubious redactions from cables when they had appeared in mainstream media. Not only names but facts were removed, and he demonstrated by comparison… If I had been the host, I would have let him continue, because that’s what we wanted to hear, but Kelly did her utmost to shut Assange down. However… because of the very long satellite delay he couldn’t hear her, so he insouciantly continued and she became visibly flustered. It was good theatre! Even after he must have heard her, Assange kept going and the excitement of the audience was rising to fever pitch. The host had lost control of the narrative. Utterly the best moment of the evening to see Assange conquer the 7-second delay.