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Sunday 26 August 2012

He craved notoriety, now he's a laughing stock

Even his staunchest followers can't help but see Julian Assange's true colours now, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

COULD I feel sorry for Julian Assange? Sure, he's got the global notoriety he craved, but he wanted to be hailed as a hero, not a jerk. Yet because he has revealed himself as such a humourless, paranoid, self-important, dishonourable jerk, millions are laughing at him when they're not denouncing him as a sex pest.

As he sits in the Ecuadorian embassy wondering if he'll be there for days, weeks, months or years, presumably Assange must while away much of his time reading about himself on the internet. And very unpleasant that must be, unless he confines himself to reading or listening to encomia from representatives of repressive states or to his fast-dwindling group of supporters, who are themselves being increasingly abused and mocked for championing the indefensible.

Many of Assange's critics were fans until it dawned on them that WikiLeaks had mainly damaged only democratic governments; that far from being keen on freedom of information, he gagged his own associates; that he seemed consumed with loathing of the US; that in Sweden he had, at the very least, behaved like a sexual boor; that since the US Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, there was no sensible reason to believe its administration would try to extradite a non-citizen for leaking information; and that claiming asylum was cowardly.

That he chose shelter with Ecuador, which routinely imprisons or silences journalists, was seen as horrifying hypocrisy.

There are few who now believe there's any good reason why Assange shouldn't go to Sweden to answer allegations of rape which English courts have ruled would also be considered rape under English law. Nor is there much patience with the suggestion that even if the US found a law under which to charge him, Sweden is more likely that the UK to extradite him. His demands that Sweden should promise he would under no circumstances be extradited are nonsensical, since the government cannot tie the hands of the courts.

But it was his boring, speech (in which he made no reference to the rape allegations) from the embassy balcony last Sunday that turned Assange into an international joke when the tweets began about his close resemblance to the late John Inman.

Inman played the high-camp Mr Humphries in the department-store sitcom Are You Being Served?, which is still re-run frequently in many countries. A photograph of Mr Humphries captioned with his catchphrase "I'm free", juxtaposed with one of Assange waving effeminately over the caption "I'm not", has been wildly popular on Facebook.

The eruption into the debate of another self-aggrandising clown, George Galloway, fuelled the growing antipathy to Assange. On a podcast from Indonesia, where he is travelling with his fourth wife, Galloway pronounced delicately on the matter of what constitutes rape. "Woman A met Julian Assange, invited him back to her flat, gave him dinner, went to bed with him, had consensual sex with him. Claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again. This is something which can happen, you know. I mean not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion."

The weird choice of the word "insertion" was what both repulsed and amused. Galloway was outraged at the criticism, and on Twitter denounced the "baying useful idiots" and the "'liberal' chorus of Pavlovian reaction [that] must delight the Pentagon". At home, a few of the usual suspects have conspiracy theories. "It was a non-consensual relationship. Well, that's very different from rape," explained Tony Benn bafflingly. John Pilger assured us that the Swedish case documents "demonstrated to any fair-minded person the absurdity of the sex allegations" -- a claim totally undermined by an explicit accusation of force quoted in a High Court ruling. Michael Moore and Oliver Stone have been applauding Ecuador's decision and denouncing their government.

Despite a ridiculous spin being put on a silly error by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office -- who mentioned in writing that in theory the police could enter the embassy to arrest Assange -- the premises will remain inviolate. But police will continue to wait outside.

What can change? Will Assange make a daring escape in a laundry basket? All I know is that in the silly season this story is giving a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. And that I'm not a bit sorry for Julian Assange.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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