Book Review: Andrew Fowler’s Biography of Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s rise to global notoriety has been lightning quick. His whistleblower website Wikileaks began merely as an inspired idea written on a piece of paper and placed in his Carlton bedroom in the inner city suburb of Melbourne. Early on Assange assumed that leaking government secrets would set the world on fire. This did not happen. The world, it appears, did not share Assange’s moral outrage. All of that would change when Wikileaks released a video in April 2010 the site labelled ‘Collateral Murder’, a classified US military video showing the killing of over a dozen people – including two Reuters news staff.

The theory behind Wikileaks is that complex and powerful bureaucracies rely on secrecy, and that once their ability to communicate in this clandestine manner is removed it makes it more difficult for them to exist. Therefore powerful institutions can be crippled by exposing (or rather leaking) their secrets. Basically taking away an organisation’s ability to harbour secrets is like taking away its oxygen, according to Assange’s political philosophy. It reduces the powerful organisation’s ability to communicate within itself; it makes it dysfunctional.

As Assange writes:

“The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

Julian Assange, Electronic Media and the Threat to the Status Quo

The Most Dangerous Man in the World explores three main themes: the character of Assange; the old print and new electronic media; and how powerful political systems react to the threat of having their secrets exposed. Andrew Fowler, a journalist with the ABC, has written a well-considered and thoughtful book about the whole Wikileaks phenomenon, and the mercurial character of Julian Assange. Usually these types of books are quickly knocked up, and are little more than cut-and-paste jobs that lazily skim the surface. As a globetrotting journalist immersed in international politics and media, Fowler brings a refreshing range and subtlety of analysis to his subject. He has also interviewed Assange, for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program.

The question that most often comes to mind when assessing the cultural significance of Julian Assange is whether he is a freedom warrior, a scourge of despots the world over, or an over hyped computer nerd living in a world of instant media fame.

In Fowler’s portrait, Assange comes across as a bit of an international hobo, travelling the world and staying wherever friends will put him up, but with no fixed address of his own. His essential character is as hard to pin down as his fixed address. Obviously highly intelligent and also creative, he has jokingly described himself as a bit autistic. He also has a tendency to flip friendships into disgruntled enemies with alarming alacrity.

From all the information that Fowler puts forward on Assange, it’s hard to take him seriously as a Messiah of the Internet age. Information technology, with its inexorable march towards complete openness, always made Wikileaks seem like a child predestined to be born. An early supporter of Assange, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, has said he identifies more with Bradley Manning, the 22 year old soldier who leaked the mammoth cache of classified documents to Wikileaks, than with Assange himself. Assange, afterall, is publisher of leaked documents, not the actual leaker. Manning faces life in jail, whereas whether Assange will ever be given a prison sentence seems unlikely.

What The Most Dangerous Man in the World really highlights is the intersection between the work of journalism and the free-for-all world of Internet publishing, where there is no editor, only individuals self-publishing and Google’s mysterious algorithm, which ranks search engine queries as a sort of machine-editor. In the end it was Assange who approached various media outlets to seek advice on how to sort through the material from the leaked US cables. On his own, as a rogue publisher, he made serious editorial mistakes by not redacting names from the Afghanistan war logs, thereby potentially putting lives at risk. Maybe this is Fowler’s journalistic bias coming through in the text, but it seems that editors and journalists are still more important than the absolute freedom of information. Information still needs to be assessed and sorted; individuals need to have their privacy protected from leaks that may endanger their lives, careers or reputations.

Whether Assange’s reputation as a freedom fighter and enlightenment figure will grow with time, it is still too early to tell. Andrew Fowler’s biography of Julian Assange persuades that the Wikileaks founder is more of an old style journalist than anything else, making public what vested interests would like to keep secret.

The Most Dangerous Man in the World, by Andrew Fowler. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 978-0-522-85866-2