Kate Reardon’s admittedly superficial assessment hints at the WikiLeaks spokesman’s deeper faults.
On Thursday, September 30—a month before WikiLeaks released its “Afghanistan War Logs” and two months before it roiled international relations with its “Cablegate” disclosures—I attended a debate at City University London between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and David Aaronvitch, a columnist for The Times of London. The proposition under discussion: “Too much information? Security and censorship in the age of Wikileaks.”
The conversation, moderated by Radio 4’s Jonathan Dimbleby, offered a fascinating primer on the dysfunctional relationship between safety and transparency, but I confess that I was really there to take the measure of Assange, 39, the Australian-born muckraker whose exploits have earned him legions of fans—and a growing number of very determined detractors.
I wanted to like him but didn’t. It may have been because of his hair. Here are my notes from the evening.
Assange’s hair is dyed blonde with dark splodges (did he dye it himself?). It may have been a disastrous attempt at highlights, but the result is a not very fetching leopard-spot effect—a flamboyant and attention-seeking hairdo for a man who seeks to present himself as unassuming.
He’s wearing a fawn turtleneck and a tight brown leather jacket that he never takes off; it remains zipped right up to the top. He must be tremendously hot. Does he not notice? Perhaps he has decided that this is his look for the night and he’s sticking with it.
Although he isn’t quite as unattractive, pallid, and sweaty as he appears in newspaper pictures, he clearly doesn’t see much daylight.
He has pale hands, with fingers that are long, elegant, and slightly creepy.
He carries a TED-branded satchel for his papers and laptop—patently pleased and proud to be part of the TED gang. You can be certain that he wouldn’t wear any branded product without very careful consideration.
He is certainly passionate, and much admired by the female students in attendance. He is King of the Geeks—serious but awkward. Over and over again, he fumbles with his microphone.
The poor quality of the sound system only magnifies his patently bad diction—it’s as though his mouth were stuffed with cotton wool or has been paralyzed by dentists’ novocaine. Or as if his tongue has swollen to three times its natural size.
Aaronovitch is by far the better communicator. He makes himself easily understood and therefore more sympathetic, despite the strong bias against him in the room. Assange’s sentences are slow, long, and rambling.
The long pauses between them show that he isn’t a people pleaser, and that he’s very happy to be the center of attention while everyone waits with bated breath for his next utterance.
He repeatedly dodges the question of accountability (which is why we are all here) and generally refuses to answer direct questions. At times he appears a bit sulky.
Amusingly, this champion of free information bans all recording devices, cameras, and photographs of the debate—allowing only one video camera to record the event.
Throughout the evening he remains almost freakishly still. Is there a raging furnace of mayhem in there that he is rigorously controlling, or is he really that calm?
Someone asks, “What do you think of Sweden [where authorities are investigating rape and sexual-harassment charges against Assange]?” He replies, “An extremely complex and interesting society.”
And that is when he finally smiles.