Coverage of the protest outside the Union (published 24-1-13)
JULIAN ASSANGE appeared at the Oxford Union via video link on Wednesday night to speak to a packed chamber as part of the Sam Adams Awards.
Downplaying a protest that had gathered outside the Union, he used his 20-minute talk to criticise The Fifth Estate, Hollywood’s attempt to dramatise the WikiLeaks saga. Claiming that he had acquired a script of the film, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as its lead, the Australian fugitive branded the film “a propaganda attack against WikiLeaks and my staff.” Its characterisation of the organisation, he told the 400-strong audience, is “a lie upon a lie.”
A half-hour question and answer session followed the talk. Lizzie Porter, a fourth-year linguist at St John’s, asked Assange how much longer he planned to stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy. “We will see. Who knows?” he said with a smile. The WikiLeaks leader is now into his seventh month inside the embassy, from where he is evading Swedish prosecutors amidst allegations of serious sexual assault.
Rachel Savage, a PPE finalist at Lincoln, made Assange wince for the first time that evening: “What would you say to the protesters outside who say your appearance tonight diminishes the seriousness of rape and sexual assault?”
“I heard there was a protest,” he acknowledged, “But we sent our cameras out there before joining you tonight and there were 28 supporters of me and of no one else.”
However, general sentiment at the protest was critical of Assange. At its peak, 70 protesters gathered on St Michael’s Street outside the Union. They chanted, “Oxford Union you should know, no means no means no means no.”
However, one student, who lives near the Union and wished to remain anonymous, observed that the protest was “much smaller than expected.” Ciaron O’Reilly, an Australian campaigner and ‘Christian anarchist’ told Cherwell that the protestors were merely “echoing the US government.”
Cherwell’s correspondent asked Tom Fingar, the award’s recipient, whether he had any warm words for Assange. In his speech he had offered the former US State Department official words of praise, but Fingar only wished Assange “good luck.” Fingar has previously sought to “disassociate” himself from Wikileaks. In an email to the protest’s organiser Simone Webb last week, Fingar ex plained, “I am appalled by the theft and distribution of US government documents because it violates the law, personal obligations, and professional ethics.”
Fingar continued, “Moreover, the charges against him are serious and the evidence apparently sufficiently compelling to persuade judicial officials in two countries that he should answer them.”
The award recognises intelligence professionals or ‘whistleblowers’ willing to take risks to honour the public’s need to know, and is judged by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of retired CIA officers.
This week, more college JCRs passed motions expressing their opposition to the Union’s decision to host Assange.
Following a debate, the president of Corpus Christi College JCR, Patricia Stephenson, wrote a letter to the Union, saying that “Corpuscles feel that by allowing Assange to speak at the Union it suggests that the institution in itself does not condemn those who are fleeing criminal charges and refusing to face trial for a criminal offence.” She added that to host Mr Assange suggested that the Union did not respect the criminal justice system.
She went on to say, “Given the mistaken perception that the Oxford Union is affiliated with Oxford University as a whole, the Union’s invitation to Assange has the potential to negatively impact the public perception of all students at Oxford.”
Balliol College JCR also supported OUSU’s motion condemning the Union’s decision to give Assange a platform. All three of its OUSU delegate votes went in favour of the motion condemning the invitation.