I RECENTLY had the opportunity to meet the controversial founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, following a speech at the University of Cambridge Union.
I am currently an undergraduate student of Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge, and originally come from Bathurst where I attended All Saints’ College.
As a member of the Cambridge Union, which regularly attracts big-name speakers from a huge variety of professions and specialities, I was able to apply to be selected as one of a small group of students who would meet and speak with Assange after his talk.
We had to write a short summary of the reasons why we wanted to meet Assange, and I mentioned that I was Australian and am interested in the Australian angle in the Wikileaks affair.
Assange agreeing to speak in Cambridge was a big coup for the union, and the talk made it into the local and national media in the UK, despite journalists being banned from the building and stringent measures to ensure no recording devices were taken in.
Students were queuing up to five hours beforehand, as the capacity of the union debating chamber is small – seating only roughly 400 people.
Assange, being on bail and currently launching his appeal against a British court’s recent ruling that he should be extradited to Sweden on sexual assault charges, was prohibited from speaking about the case or his legal troubles. Instead, he spoke about the role of Wikileaks in the current unrest in the Arab world (saying it played a much larger role than that of Twitter or Facebook in bringing down Ben Ali and Mubarak), and the difficulty the organisation has in obtaining funding, due to the campaign against them which prevents them from receiving donations via Paypal, Visa, etc.
He was asked several questions about his own personal moral code.
He admitted that he is guided by his own set of ethics, saying that if his sources disagreed with the way he used their leaks, such as the timing as to when the leaks are released [he said he aimed for “maximum impact”], then they would stop leaking their information to Wikileaks. In this way the system is “democratic”.
Assange was somewhat unconventional as a speaker, he projected his voice well and was constantly looking around the room making eye contact with the audience, but he appeared nervous and often paused in the middle of a sentence to go over his notes.
When meeting him in a more personal setting afterwards he seemed much more at ease and comfortable in the spotlight.
There was quite a scrum of students around him and I had to fight my way to the front, but was able to get his attention and speak to him for about five minutes.
Assange saw my name tag [Kylie] and asked if I was Australian. I said I was.
I then asked him about Gillard and the Australian government’s role in his predicament, and whether he felt he was receiving adequate consular assistance.
He replied that Gillard and her ministers were making it extremely difficult for Wikileaks in Australia, that they had set up a special taskforce to spy on and monitor Wikileaks’ Australian employees, including him, and that they were passing information on to the US.
I asked him if he planned on releasing any more leaks relating to Australia, and he said he would soon, and he had leaks which proved that the Australian Government had been collecting information about its citizens and was giving it to the American security services, something which Gillard has denied.
Assange also spoke about China, and the difficulty involved in getting leaks from there in recent years, due to a firmer Chinese Government crackdown on Wikileaks.
He said that at the beginning Wikileaks was able to publish much more information about China, and a Chinese group had even set up its own leaks website, but the government rounded them up and shut down their site.
He said they hope to publish much more material on China in the future.
Meeting Assange in the flesh was a wonderful, if somewhat nerve-wracking experience, and opportunities such as this are one of the big bonuses of going to a university such as Cambridge.