Speaking on the steps of St Paul’s during the heyday of Occupy

Free at last!

He exposed US war crimes, dissed the global hegemon and faced life imprisonment. Sir Keir Starmer did nothing to help him. On the contrary, there was complicity with the Obama administration. Marcus Strom welcomes the release, but worries about the continued threat to free speech

Julian Assange’s release on June 24 is cause for celebration. For more than five years he has languished in a maximum-security cell in Belmarsh prison, as the US sought to extradite him to face a possible 175 years in jail - effectively a death sentence - for exposing its war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

If he were a US citizen he could have pleaded the first amendment. That option might have been open to him after the May 20 2024 high court judgement in London - however, he is Australian. And that would have meant many more years of appeals and, of course, he faced multiple charges.

Assange’s five years in Belmarsh came after he spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over long-since-dropped allegations of sexual misconduct. Assange jumped bail, fearful he would be sent for trial in the US, and sought safety in the embassy in June 2012, where he was granted political asylum.

Assange was always prepared to be questioned in London on the matter, but the UK crown prosecution service - then headed by Sir Keir Starmer - was one of many blocks preventing this routine procedure from happening. Sir Keir certainly played his part in supporting the long intelligence arm of the US empire, trying to ensure Assange would face the music.

Records destroyed

It is something strange indeed that, while Sir Keir oversaw that part of Assange’s legal ordeal, he visited the US to meet with US attorney-general Eric Holder four times. But the CPS has destroyed all records of his four trips to Washington.1 Conspiracy or cock-up? Who knows?

At the time many sage voices in the mainstream media said Sweden would not allow him to be extradited to the US. Among them, of course, one Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist and former darling of the Labour left. The fact that after his forced removal from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019 he was immediately slapped with the extradition request surely put a lie to that argument. Revelations that, while in the embassy, Trump’s man at Langley, then in the State Department, Mike Pompeo, asked the CIA for ‘options’ for the abduction or assassination of Assange shows how the US views the norms of law when it comes dealing with someone who has dissed the global hegemon.2

Assange flew out of Britain on Monday and presented himself to a judge in a remote US federal court in the North Mariana Islands - he was sensibly not prepared to land on the US mainland. He has pleaded guilty to a single charge (out of 18 in total) of revealing defence secrets, and received a 62-month sentence, already considered served. He has now flown home to Australia, a free man.

No doubt, Julian Assange is a hero for our times - a modern-day ‘man in the iron mask’. His release is a victory for all who fought against the US empire, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a snub to the quislings in the mainstream media who ummed and ahhed about whether or not they thought Assange was a journalist.

Assange and Wikileaks revolutionised information gathering for journalism and the fourth estate. The innovation of safe and secure electronic drops for classified or leaked information are now commonplace in newsrooms the world over. In 2011, Wikileaks received the Walkley Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism - Australia’s top media award.


While we celebrate his release, advocates of a free press must still feel a chill that Assange has had to plead guilty to one count of breaching the Espionage Act. What sort of precedent that sets for reporting on US military secrets in the future is unclear. Reporting on national security issues is - or should be - bread and butter for honest journalism.

Assange has been a proud member of Australia’s journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, and its global umbrella, the International Federation of Journalists since 2007. The MEAA has put out a statement that notes:

The work of Wikileaks at the centre of this case - which exposed war crimes and other wrongdoing by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan - was strong, public-interest journalism.

MEAA fears the deal will embolden the US and other governments around the world to continue to pursue and prosecute journalists who disclose to the public information they would rather keep suppressed.

While Assange is now free, it is clear that journalism is not.

Of course, no-one in their right mind will blame Assange for accepting the deal. He was dying in prison.

Campaigners for Assange and a free press will now continue to press the US for a full pardon for Assange, who has committed no crime other than telling the truth to the world.

Those at the core of Wikileaks and their supporters worldwide have shown extraordinary courage and determination in the fight for Assange’s freedom. The MEAA and other media unions, including the European Federation of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, have shown consistent support too. The US media union, NewsGuild CWA, after having dragged its feet on the issue, eventually called for his release.

His former collaborators at The Guardian, The New York Times and elsewhere have been less consistent (and that is being generous). While many individual journalists have stood up throughout Assange’s ordeal, some betrayed him and the big news houses in London, New York and Sydney have squirmed throughout. Some condemned him outright. Assange does not play by their rules of quid pro quo with the powers that be, and for that many resent him.

In Australia, the then Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, acted as judge and jury as far back as 2010, saying Assange was “guilty of illegality”, saying she had sought “advice about potential criminal conduct of the individual involved” from the Australian Federal Police.

The current Labor government has pursued backroom talks with the US, which no doubt framed part of the final release of Assange. But much of its public commentary was to only say ‘it’s gone on too long’, afraid of embarrassing its Aukus partners. Most in the ALP leadership were reluctant convert to the cause, forced by public campaigning to shift position. After years of civil society campaigning, a cross-party block formed in the Australian parliament calling for Assange’s release - including Liberal and National Party conservatives, independents, Greens and the ALP.

Despite publicly playing the quiet diplomacy game, on the inside prime minister Anthony Albanese was forthright in his support for Assange’s release. This helped shift the ALP.

In his flight to freedom, Assange was accompanied by Australian high commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith - a former ALP defence minister - and met in the Marianas by US ambassador and former PM Kevin Rudd, showing that the Albanese government left nothing to chance at the last hurdle.

Nonetheless, for years Australian governments of all stripes have claimed it was nothing to do with them - a legal case involving the US and the UK. It will be interesting to see how much credit prime minister Albanese now claims for his backroom negotiations, which definitely had an impact.

The motivation for the Biden administration to cut such a deal with Assange at this time is electoral. Biden was previously known as an Assange hawk - but with the possible trial of a free speech campaigner looming over an election, he didn’t want to hand that axe to Trump to grind.


Assange’s broader supporters have been a mixed bag. Many have been excellent. But the campaign has also attracted its share of crazy conspiracists - not surprising, given the terrain and the revelations of some actual conspiracies against him. However, many ‘Assangistas’ maintain more than a residual of conspiracy ‘anti-imperialist’ politics - an anti-imperialism of fools.

The touchstone for many of these people is support for a ‘multi-polar world’, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Calling out the crimes of the US is one thing, but identifying any of its strategic enemies as a needed counterbalance is quite another. For some, this is mundane support for the Brics bloc and a shift from a global reliance on the US dollar. For others, it means effective support for regimes in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing: all criminals themselves.

Missing from this dead-end and dangerous politics is the democratic agency of our camp: the global working class - which brings us to the limits of Assange’s political mission. Who knows where he has landed after his ordeal? He deserves time to recuperate with family, friends and his comrades. But the Wikileaks project, while audacious, was a project that could be called ‘techno-anarchism’. Assange came out of the hacker community - no doubt sincere in his belief that the truth shall set you free.

Assange thought that the public could fight to change the world if we didn’t know how it all worked.

The mission of Wikileaks was that tearing down the veil of the secret state would make it possible for people to organise, forcing institutionalised power to crumble, once the scales fell from our eyes.

While the glare of publicity is essential for democratic change, Assange has learnt to his own cost that this is not quite how power works. It will take the organised, democratic force of the working class on a global scale to tear down the power of imperialism. That is a task of audacious hope and imagination, which is now ours to take up.

Marcus Strom is a member of the Australian Labor Party, a former Labor press secretary and immediate past president of MEAA Media, the journalists’ union in Australia

  1. www.declassifieduk.org/cps-has-destroyed-all-records-of-keir-starmers-four-trips-to-washington.↩︎

  2. See www.theguardian.com/media/2021/sep/27/senior-cia-officials-trump-discussed-assassinating-julian-assange.↩︎