Julian Assange is to address the Oxford Union via live video link from the Ecuadorian embassy, in which the Australian fugitive has evaded rape allegations since June.
Mr Assange, the Wikileaks founder, will talk to the Union next Wednesday for 20 minutes about “the importance of free information and integrity in intelligence gathering”.
Suzanne Holsomback, OUSU Vice-President for Women, branded the Union’s decision as “deliberately provocative and clearly an exercise in sensationalism.”
Assange’s address in the Union chamber will follow the presentation of the ‘Sam Adams Award’, which honours dissenters and whistleblowers in the intelligence community. The talk will be followed by a 20-minute Q&A in which “members of the audience will be invited to put questions on any topic” to Mr Assange and other speakers, including Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.
It remains unclear whether the questions will be moderated. Rachel Savage, a third-year PPEist at Lincoln, backed the Union, but complained that the ceremony of the occasion would frustrate proper discussion. She claimed, “Given the accusations against [Assange], students need to be given the chance to question him fully and openly, without the potential limits and distractions that this ceremony will likely involve”.
In a press release the Union defended its invitation, stating, “Mr Assange is a thinker and activist who has made significant contributions to the debate on government transparency.” While the Union admitted the potency of the allegations against him, it hopes that his profile will not overshadow the presentation, arguing, “Institutional corruption, whistleblowing and freedom of speech can all be discussed without in any way sanctioning or condoning his alleged private actions.”
Michael Young, a second-year historian at Brasenose, defended the Union’s contentious decision, claiming that most of its members welcome the event. “The job of the Union,” he opined, “is to provide stimulating debates, not to tailor its speakers to agree with minority interests.”
But Simone Webb, a second-year PPEist at Hertford, is organising a protest outside the Oxford Union to coincide with Assange’s talk. Webb, who is also LGBTQ Society President, criticised the Union’s biography of Assange in its term card. It describes him as a “champion” of freedom of information, though admitting “some have criticised his activities as reckless and dangerous”. It fails to mention the allegations of sexual assault against him, for which Swedish prosecutors are seeking his extradition.
As of late Thursday evening the protest had attracted 110 confirmed attendees on Facebook group. They included Tom Rutland, President-Elect of OUSU, Joe Morris, Treasurer of Oxford University Labour Club, and Sarah Pine, the former OUSU Women’s Officer. Pine told Cherwell that the Union had committed itself to “further treating the experiences of rape survivors with contempt” and encouraged others to “join the resistance.”
The Sam Adams Award is given annually by Sam Adams Associates, a group of renegade former intelligence officers, to “an intelligence professional who has taken a stand for integrity and ethics”. According to Union officials the award, which Assange won in 2010, is “very close to his heart.” Its recipient this year will be Thomas Fingar, a former US official who in 2008 reported that the Iranian nuclear missile programme had halted, frustrating the Bush/Cheney Administration.
However, in an email to Webb last night, Fingar sought to “disassociate myself from [Assange] and his actions.” He described himself as “appalled by the theft and distribution of US government documents because it violates the law, personal obligations, and professional ethics.” He also said that Assange should face the allegations against him.
Moreover there are concerns that Assange’s lengthy appearance at the presentation will overshadow the rest of the event. One union member said that she felt sorry for Fingar, whose “brave exposure of wrongdoings will be overshadowed by Assange’s appearance.”
Christine Assange, Julian Assange’s mother, last night took to Twitter to brand next Wednesday’s Oxford Union protestors “irrational man-haters.”
The 61-year old reserved her strongest criticism for the protest’s organiser, Simone Webb, whom she accused of being in cahoots with “paid anti-Wikileaks trolls”, and of “enjoying the limelight just a little too much”. Webb subsequently blocked her.
But Ms Assange wasn’t the only tweeter to take a dim view of Webb’s protest. Harriet Rose Noons, a second-year engineer, demanded that her fellow Hertford student “stop being so childish” and advised her to stop “flaunting your opinion on Facebook and the Guardian.”
Within an hour of the Twitter war erupting the Australian website NEWS. com.au, a subsidiary of media giant News Limited, was reporting that Webb had been the victim of “social media abuse.”
Speaking to Cherwell once the online argument had settled down, Webb described the behaviour of dedicated Assange followers as “obsessive and cult- like.”
She said, “Assange’s mother and many of Assange’s supporters have a habit of accusing anyone who criticises Assange of being in the pay of some shadowy person or organisation.”
“This will not affect the protest, which will still go ahead,” she said.
Having been asked to comment further on her tweets, Ms Assange told Cherwell, “You silly, spiteful, naive, wilfully disgracefully uninformed little girls need to grow up.” She continued to protest her son’s innocence, stating, “not only a mans [sic] reputation is at stake but his life and liberty and the greater cause of global freedoms.”
NEWS REPORT/Tom Beardsworth
VIDEO REPORT/Xin Fan