Friday, 8 February 2013

Another one bites the dust: Jemima Khan drops Julian Assange

Clip from the New Statesman story by Khan
on the website of the publication.
The way I see it, it's essentially a clash of cultures. Jemima Khan, a prominent Brit who is the associate editor of the publication New Statesman, as well as a writer, has published a piece in that journal criticising Julian Assange. As many, including Khan herself, will be happy to point out the list of those who have abandoned support for Assange is not getting any shorter. The falling-out seems to have hinged on a few instances of non-communication Assange has been guilty of when Khan has asked Assange to comment on a number of issues. Khan also says she wants Assange to stop avoiding the Swedish extradition warrant, and go to Sweden to answer the allegations that are active there. There's also a film Khan was involved with that WikiLeaks supporters attacked.

Most damningly, it appears, Khan accuses Assange and his camp of subscribing to the Dubya-era tenet: "with us or against us." Khan wants more shades of grey. She wants questions answered. She wants to make up her own mind. She finds Assange's apparent aloofness puzzling. So she attacks him.

But she fails to understand the culture of the world in which Assange grew up and developed both his ideas and his persona. The hacktivist culture Assange comes from is extremely harsh when it comes to taking a strong position on a subject deemed important enought to warrant it. Defending a position, in that culture, is a matter of the deepest honour, and any means necessary to do so are adopted. The tone of debate is extremely harsh and personal attacks are routine. Because most communication takes place via the written word in chat rooms and in social media, the people involved have developed highly effective communication styles. They are logical, ruthlessly so. And indeed it can appear that "with us or against us" is the rule by which they live.

It's necessary, of course, to acknowledge that WikiLeaks supporters daily have their hands full on this count parrying the (sometimes) outrageous attacks of persons who hate their cause. They get so used to fighting fires, one imagines, that any person who questions motives or challenges facts just risks getting caught up in the maelstrom of verbal activity that plays out minute by minute on the internet.

Khan, for her part, has been involved for many years in journalism, where there is (in the best cases) a fundamental requirement for objectivity. In a sense, it will be those journalists who hold to this ethical requirement of professionalism who will be most easily alienated by a hacker like Assange, especially one who believes that there are, indeed, "dark forces" at play in his case. I don't think that Khan appreciates how stressful Assange's work has been, and I don't think that Assange - who oddly enough professes to be a journalist (and whose supporters take it as fact) - understands enough about the way that truth is arrived at in journalism. If you question a stated fact from a hacker or question their motives, then of course their first reaction is going to be to recoil and attack in turn. But if you avoid questioning by a journalist then the journalist's first reaction is to presume that you have something to hide, or that your motives are not entirely pure.

It's sad that Khan has taken the position that she has, and in such a public manner. But I understand her motivation. It's also sad that Assange continues to plug away at the "journalist" myth, which is of course something of a defence for him especially regarding US law and legal precedent, while obviously knowing very little about journalism itself. And it's sad that the two cultures - hacktivist and journalist - are being polarised in the case of WikiLeaks, since it would always have been ethical journalists who would be the most useful defenders of Julian Assange and his extraordinary digital creature.

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