Later today (May 30, 2012) the UK Supreme Court will judge on Julian Assange’s appeal against extradition to Sweden on serious sexual assault charges against two different women. (NB this was written yesterday evening and published this morning privately prior to the judgment of the SC which dismissed his efforts to avoid extradition).
Assange is the multi award winning and celebrated/infamous (depending on your political views) face of Wikileaks, an organisation that gained reputation both good and ill for publishing leaked government communications which have called into question the very principles of freedom of speech and the concept of the United States as an unequivacable force for good.
There are so many reasons to write about this, and as British citizen I feel I cannot sit back and not consider what is being decided in my courts. However, in spirit of this blog, I am taking a completely different analysis and assessing the ethical dilemma that Assange’s spirited defence may have on our industry and litigation PR specifically.
With respect to Julian’s defence, they have done a massive job of raising public sympathy and portraying him, accurately or not, as the victim in a massive international conspiracy.
For those not aware of the situation, here is a quick summary of the background on today’s legal ruling fed from Wikipedia (some minor editing and rearrangement for time order):
On 20 August 2010, Swedish police began an investigation into allegations concerning Assange’s behaviour in separate sexual encounters involving two different women.
In December 2010,the Swedish authorities had issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) to extradite him to Sweden for questioning.
There are four charges: that on 14 August 2010 he committed “unlawful coercion” when he held complainant 1 down with his body weight in a sexual manner; that he “sexually molested” complainant 1 when he had condom-less sex with her after she insisted that he use one; that he had condom-less sex with complainant 2 on the morning of 17 August while she was asleep; and that he “deliberately molested” complainant 1 on 18 August 2010 by pressing his erect penis against her body.
Assange voluntarily attended a police station in England on 7 December 2010, and was arrested and taken into custody.
An extradition hearing took place on 7–8 and 11 February 2011 before the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court when the extradition warrant was upheld.
On 2 March 2011, his lawyers lodged papers at the High Court challenging the ruling to extradite Assange to Sweden.
After a hearing on 12 and 13 July 2011, the High Court reserved its judgment, and on 2 November 2011, dismissed his appeal.
On 5 December 2011 Assange’s lawyers were granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, after the High Court certified that a point of law of general public importance, that ought to be considered by the Supreme Court, was involved in its decision.
The Supreme Court heard the appeal on 1 and 2 February 2012.
The court reserved its judgment, which will be handed down on 30 May 2012.
So, the above is what will be judged by the court.
The PR Story
So why is this a PR issue, or even a PR ethics one?
The tactics and strategy pursued by Assange’s team throughout this is textbook litigation support PR.
They have successfully – in my humble opinion given they have managed to raise an appeal to the UK supreme court, organised celebrity backing and endorsement valued at GBP 200,000+ arranged support demos around the world and least of all inspired me to think and write – created a powerful PR narrative which has materially damaged the prosecution’s case.
Bit of academia for you now in case you are ever in a similar situation (!) i.e. accused of multiple serious sexual crimes on your ’employees’ or followers and face extradition to a potentially hostile foreign country (Irish catholic priests take note).
The key objective in litigation support is to prime the court so that they take into consideration arguments that are either later made in court, or are not possible to make in court.
The valid reasons for ‘not being able to argue’ information in court may be:
- A key witness is being coerced
- Information in the public interest or in the interest of justice may be excluded on a technicality
- Unfair pressure is being placed on the court by external parties as well such as political influence;
- Potential unfair treatment
- The pursuit of justice
In the Assange case, it would appear they have been successful at building credibility by framing messages against each of the above:
1. A key witness is being coerced
The insinuation made by the Assange camp is that the case had been withdrawn by the Swedish police after only 24hrs, and that it was only reopened after the involvement of a Swedish politician. The leap of faith required is that the US Government has somehow influenced the Swedes to support their vindictive campaign against Wikileaks.
2. Unfair pressure is being placed on the court by external parties
The defence claims that the extradition is in fact a ploy by the US government to arrange secret and extraordinary rendition to the United States. This claim has been fueled by aggressive rhetoric from certain officials who have not only called for Assange’s arrest and trial – but for his execution as well.
3. Pursuit of justice provides a consequential backing
Wikileaks claims to be a force for good and in fact, it may have actually achieved great things on our behalf by providing a medium for sharing information that governments, including democratic Western powers, do not wish to share with the people they are accountable to.
4. Potential unfair treatment
Wikileaks team cite that Swedish sexual crime trials are held in ‘secret’ or privacy. Which might protect both the victims AND the accused in other cases… something which the UK press has frequently written about.
They also make arguments that the laws in Sweden are different to the UK, which means they should not be applicable…
5. Lack of hard evidence
Certainly none of the above ‘facts’ can be proven, and given the low reputation of the US right now faced with the repercussions of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction; Abu Gharaib prison scandal; Guantanamo Bay; and various other Human Rights breaches they are all sadly, very plausable.
Also, the restrictions on donations enforced on Wikileaks by US-based payment channels is arguably an unofficial and possibly illegal embargo on the principles of Free Speech and the US’ own 1st Amendment.
“We are forced to put all our efforts into raising funds to ensure our economic survival. For almost a year we have been fighting an unlawful financial blockade. We cannot allow giant US finance companies to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket. Our battles are costly. We need your support to fight back. Please donate now.”
It is also sadly backed by the US’ failure to proceed with natural and transparent justice that it espouses and advocates for other nations (again from Wikileaks):
WikiLeaks: 542 days of banking blockade – no process
Assange: 539 days detainment – no charge
Manning: 736 days in jail – no trial
Grand Jury: 622 days US secret Grand Jury into WikiLeaks – no transparency
What Assange and Wikileaks have also done is to use the Internet and social media to build awareness and create support. Whether its via Twitter, or its own version of Facebook, Wikileaks has not only campaigned effectively and communicated ‘transparently’ but it has managed to polarise entire communities.
Given the potential for media to be co-oerced by political or commercial interests (which has effectively been identified and criticised by the Global Reporting Initiative in its Media Sector Supplement – please see earlier articles in my Blog) or the difficulty in maintaining a profile sufficient to have a material impact (consider the tragic story of Madeleine McCann); social media is by far the best and perhaps only way for a person accused to fight their case.
So for right or wrong…. this campaign may be regarded by some as best practice to be emulated.
However, the Assange campaign does not address nor attempt to answer the issue, nor the complaints of the individuals in question who are possibly victims of a very serious crime. Instead it obfuscates, bridges and moves to a completely different and possibly unrelated issue altogether – that of Freedom of Speech and the leaking of various US official documents.
In the attempt and due to the reasons explained, it does not use facts directly related to the charges but instead uses powerful rhetoric and framed messages to try and argue a case unrelated to the one being examined.
And ultimately it shows an individual with significantly greater resources using PR and its tools to exercise their rights over those who are much less privileged.
Therefore, although as a PR practitioner and a Brit I must respect the principles of freedom of speech and the concept of Wikileaks (although perhaps not all of its actions), I cannot and do not pass the same obligation of goodwill to Mr Julian Assange who should face his accusers and have his day in a Swedish courtroom.
If one stands for the highest ideals. If one advocates and criticises others, then one must be prepared to be accountable for one’s own actions. Assange does not deny ‘relations with these women’ (Clintonese) his legal team merely claims it was consensual…
If you consider the following also from Wikipedia:
According to published reports, the charges Sweden has lodged against Assange involve two different women, neither of whom contacted the police until after they discovered they were both involved with him. Their initial intention was reportedly to force Assange to take an HIV test.
For the sake of the brand image of Wikileaks, Assange has to go back to Sweden, fight his case, and win. Or, be spirited away to the United States and tried for espionage or held secretly without charge.
Anything else denies justice for the ladies (Wikileaks volunteers – BBC reporting) who have made their complaints.
In my opinion, Assange has only three possible endings.
- He is either guilty of multiple, serious sexual crimes.
- He will be vindicated of everything except stupidity for entering superficial and inappropriate relations with people under his influence.
- He will be martyred for the principles of free speech.
Alternatively and as a long shot he will be granted a ‘get out of jail free card’ by the UK Supreme Court and a one-way ticket to Ecuador…
Next steps – I think Wikileaks will soon be planning a ‘world of tomorrow’ without Assange and he might (should?) resign from the organisation to ‘concentrate on his defense’ shortly after today’s SC judgment which will almost certainly find against him.