Saturday, June 4, 2011

Julian Assange at Hay

From my vantage point in San Francisco, I really do not know what to make of the Hay Festival.  Since the event is organized by the London Telegraph, it makes sense that the Web site for this newspaper give heavy coverage to the Festival events;  and I certainly cannot object that an old and established newspaper (which I read for its arts coverage, rather than its politics) should commit itself to the nuts and bolts of a literary festival.  My biggest perplexity has to do with what seems to be a parallel commitment to celebrity appearances.  It gives the impression that the Telegraph believes that no one would trek out to a remote village in Wales were it not for the opportunities to gawk at celebrities.  Whether or not this happens to be true, it is just too dismal a premise for me, which is probably why I am just as happy to trek up to the Poetry Room of City Lights when I want to hear talk about books.

Presumably the appearance of Julian Assange at this year’s Festival falls in the celebrity category.  He is clearly not an author, nor does he have aspirations to be one.  Why he appeared at an event called The Book Show is beyond me, but it probably captures yet another of those dismal premises.

The worst of it, however, is the way in which Telegraph reporter Louise Gray prepared a story of how various people (including some celebrities) reacted to the event.  The bottom line is that none of those reactions really address what Assange has done and why he did those things.  Given that Assange has always been pretty straightforward in expressing both of these aspects, I can only conclude one of two things:  Either his audience was incredibly dense, perhaps choosing not to pay attention to what he was saying;  or Gray really made a hash out of her sample space.

The bottom line is that the sample space expressed a preference for negative impressions of mistrust, which all seemed to be based on Assange’s surface-level appearance and behavior.  By those criteria Albert Einstein could just as easily be dismissed as a mad scientist.  My real aggravation, however, was Gray’s presentation of one Paola Cooper, who accused Assange as being a “manipulator of information.”  Following that capsule introduction, Gray provided the following quote:

What makes him any different from the organisations he is tracking? He decides what to publish and what not to publish.

Personally, I see Assange walking a fine line between disclosure and publication.  He usually says that he just downloads stuff into a publicly accessible database.  Decisions about publication are left to specific news providers who can do what they feel is professionally responsible with that database.  I would be surprised if he did not repeat this mantra at least once during his Hay appearance.

My own conclusion about Gray’s report is that the Telegraph wants to portray Assange as a representative of all that is evil in the news business.  The problem is that Assange is not in the news business.  One might even say that he is not in any business.  It makes me wonder why he agreed to put in an appearance in the first place.  Was he made an offer so generous that he knew it would help with legal expenses, or did he think that the Hay audience would be more enlightened than one that has been thoroughly conditioned by the different media outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch?  If the latter was his motive, then I feel kind of sorry for him.

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