Julian Assange joins the headline junkies back after the Olympics with his preference for Ecuador over Sweden
Watch out, here comes Boris, John Bercow and, yes, it’s Richard Branson, all waving their “look at me” placards. It’s mid-August and a familiar cast of silly season characters is finally free to fight its way into the headlines after frustrating weeks behind the enormous barrier of the London Olympics.
The Olympics had its own silly season sub-plots aplenty, but at least it was a real event with a real narrative drive, one which might have turned out badly – tragedy or farce – but became an unexpected triumph. The row over expat cricket star Kevin Pietersen’s text messages –childish and disloyal – ahead of the Lords Test is also a proper yarn, though England supporters could have done without it. We’re not quite in the new football season yet.
None of which can be said of Boris’s latest “stop pussyfooting around” message to David Cameron and George Osborne (it’s the lead story in today’s Times) let alone Mr Speaker Bercow’s most recent outburst, courtesy of Radio 4 on a slow news day, against his “embittered” critics on the Tory benches at Westminster and their “low-grade, sub-standard, low music hall drivel” allies in the media.
It’s not that Mayor Johnson didn’t have a point in his London Evening Standard interview. So does Speaker Bercow. But the objects of their scorn have counter-points to make. If it was easy to locate a new London airport in crowded south-east England someone would have done it over the past 40 years of public agonising. Ditto kick-starting a flatlining economy. Everyone from Beijing to Berlin via Chicago is trying, but they’re all stuck. Boris gets gold for his motor-mouth.
As for Bercow he is often correct in his efforts to raise parliament’s game. But his many enemies are also correct when they complain that he and his wife, Sally, don’t know how to behave with dignity appropriate to high public office. The pair display grotesque egotism and are serial offenders. Bercow’s World at One interview was toe-curling.
Of course, there was no need for other media to make a fuss over their predictable ravings – the Guardian tucked away short reports sensibly on its inside pages. And what could be more predictable than Richard Branson crying “foul” after the government finally took his advice to be less risk-averse in the awarding of public contracts by handing his Virgin Rail franchise to rival FirstGroup.
Who’s right? It’s impossible to say at this stage and even the rail experts disagree. But Branson, who has done very well at both feuding in public and liposuctioning taxpayers’ money (Northern Rock is his latest target), is a notoriously bad loser, shamelessly milking the public’s love of an underdog even though he’s been an alpha male overdog for decades.
Of course, these things are highly subjective. For years I’ve been amazed how reflexively fawning a press that Gore Vidal enjoyed in leftish, Yank-bashing quarters for his arrogant and increasingly off-target assaults upon the United States and all its works. So I was grateful to his former protégé, Christopher Hitchens (no wallflower himself), for the kicking he gave Vidal in 2010, posthumously republished this month after the old rogue died.
Vidal had become a reactionary and a very familiar kind of American isolationist, Hitchens concluded. Which is not to say he wasn’t a brilliant essayist and phrase-maker. That’s the trouble with real talent, as biographers so often discover once they’ve drilled beneath the hagiography. Evelyn Waugh may have been a bit of a shit, Graham Greene a very difficult customer, but they wrote some novels that will last.
In any case, good people can be annoying too. I am afraid I have ceased to read interviews with Doreen Lawrence. She suffered a grievous loss in the murder of her son Stephen at that bus stop in 1993 – he was just a few days older than one of my children, now 37 – and has campaigned gallantly for justice ever since, rightly honoured at the Olympic opening ceremony. But I feel I now know what she has to say.
Today’s other headline junkie is a very different case. The government of distant Ecuador was placed in an awkward position when Julian Assange, the Wikileaks champion, sought political asylum in its London embassy. Overnight it has worked itself up into a state over a letter from the Foreign Office which points out that the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act may – may, since the legal point is disputed – allow the Metropolitan police to arrest Assange inside the modest Knightsbridge premises if William Hague unilaterally chooses to end its diplomatic status.
“Britain threatens to seize Assange” is the Times headline on Thursday, the Guardian is sensibly more precise in saying that’s how Quito chose to interpret the reminder as it geared up to announce its decision on whether to grant Assange’s request. It sounded like a bogus over-reaction and a distraction worthy of a Branson.
The legislative background is understandable. Back in the 80s, so a lawyer explained on air this morning, the Iranian embassy had been seized, as had the Cambodian one by squatters. And PC Yvonne Fletcher had been murdered by a diplomat from inside Libya’s People’s Bureau in central London. Margaret Thatcher, no less, had to let him go.
But the 1987 act – passed in haste just before a general election – was designed to rectify problems of terrorism, not extradition. Experienced and retired diplomats are saying it would be unwise to use it to collar Assange. Not that the FCO said it would, only that it had the power to do so. Presumably the government of President Rafael Correa knows it would have a problem getting its VIP guest to Heathrow and out of the country anyway.
The real problem for supporters of Julian Assange is that they want to believe in him, as they did in his publications of those WikiLeaks cables allegedly leaked by Bradley Manning, the American soldier now facing a fearsome prison sentence for numerous offences. But what people do – whether it’s as writers or as political activists – is not always matched by who they are as private individuals.
So the Assange-ites have been placed in the awkward position of claiming that their man is a persecuted journalist (he’s not, he’s an activist) upholding free speech who fears that, if he goes to Sweden to fight those allegations of sexual misconduct, he will be whisked off to an American jail with a death penalty hanging over him. Ecuador, whose government does lock up uppity hacks, is deemed a better bet.
It’s a big ask which requires people who might otherwise fiercely defend the rights of women not to suffer sexual abuse without redress to dismiss the charges made by his Swedish accusers. Tricky stuff, which is why it may be better for Assange to take his chance in a court inside one of the most reputable countries in the world, its due process well able to provide justice and stand up to any arm-twisting from the US attorney general’s office. Better than us, did I hear you whisper.
Meanwhile, Julian Assange joins Boris, Bercow and Branson on my silly season list. Mind you, it’s not all silly season gloom and doom. Have you been following Gillian and Adrian Bayforth, the couple from Haverhill in Suffolk, who won £148m on the lottery? They seem a very grounded couple and determined to stay that way. Yesterday they flew off on a holiday break, by easyJet from Stanstead to a caravan park in Angus where Mrs B’s parents live. They plan to share their good fortune. Good for them. I could tolerate hearing more about the Bayfords. Not all Bs are B for B******s.