Assange the cyber-bushranger

Assange the cyber-bushranger

A fugitive Australian rebel, he repeatedly embarrasses and evades the authorities, in the process becoming an icon of resistance and folk hero. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is the Ned Kelly of the Digital Age.

WHILE riding home from Wangaratta on a horse stolen by an acquaintance, infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly overpowered a policeman who attempted to first arrest and then shoot him. Kelly proceeded to humiliate the constable by riding him like a horse.

The parallels between the celebrated Australian bushranger and today’s new most famous Aussie outlaw are hard to resist.

Photos of Julian Assange, his sharp features and wispy white hair, are already as synonymous with the notion of the outlaw folk hero as those of the amply bearded Kelly. Assange is an at-large cyber-bushranger: a renegade taunter of authority and inspiration to many who marvel at his daring to challenge the status-quo.

Ned Kelly
Infamous Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly

Like the 19th Century outlaw, the 21st Century incarnation has his hideouts, sympathisers and accomplices. In the digital age though, the weapon is a website; the bullets, information. The problem for today’s enforcers is that it is not at all clear if it’s actually illegal for Assange to shoot.

Under constant attack, the controversial site is as much a fugitive as its creator, lately finding refuge on a Swiss host. Through digital proxies, mirrors and shifting servers, the website is Assange’s own iconic clunky suit of armour, its hourglass logo as emblematic of resistance as Kelly’s imposing, welded steel helmet.

Writing in a live chat on The Guardian from an undisclosed location believed to be in the UK, as he awaits arrest on highly questionable and widely derided Swedish rape allegations which have suddenly re-surfaced, Assange responded to the Australian government’s WikiLeaks investigating task-force and stated support for their US counterparts’ international man-hunt. The website’s spokesman, who earlier called for the resignation of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, again took direct aim at his accusers.

Questioning what it means to be an Australian citizen, he wrote: “Does that mean anything at all? Or are we all to be treated like David Hicks at the first possible opportunity merely so that Australian politicians and diplomats can be invited to the best US embassy cocktail parties?”

Attacking Australia’s Attorney General specifically, in a manner no doubt even more pleasing to his growing army of online savvy sympathisers, a link on the WikiLeaks website’s homepage to an AAP report on about the government’s quest for the legal mechanism to prosecute Assange is attached with the words, “Robert McClelland is a US suckhole, worse than Howard on Hicks, and needs to go.”

For his part, re-affirming his government’s commitment to supporting the US over the WikiLeaks boss, on Saturday McClelland stated that cancelling Assange’s passport had been considered.

The reason he gave for not cancelling the passport was that it could in fact be “counter-productive to the law enforcement”, a passport being one of the few ways of tracking a fugitive’s movements if and when they travel internationally.

It had nothing to do, then, with the considerably dubious ethics and flimsy legalities of exiling an Australian citizen from his own country on the basis that, as McClelland himself put it, “United States laws may have been breached”? That should concern us more than anything so far revealed by the cables.

So, Arab governments are as concerned as any other about a nuclear armed Iran, Russia is a Mafia-like state, China hacked Google and annoyed Kevin Rudd at Copenhagen but agrees that North Korea is a basket case, and the UK is desperate to keep relations with the US as ‘special’ as possible, while their forces have been less than effective in Afghanistan. Hardly revelations.

Also read: WikiLeaks – Clinton grills Rudd on China

Rather, isn’t it re-assuring that our governments do actually broadly come to the same conclusions about the big international issues as any rational, average voter?

It’s a shame such clarity of reason evades our elected representatives when it comes to how they react to WikiLeaks and its creator.

In reality, national feelings have been hurt more than national security has been endangered – although Monday’s release of a list of facilities considered by the US as ‘critical’ to security, perhaps crosses a line.

Julian Assange mocks those in charge, and like after Kelly rode his policeman, the authorities need their revenge; explaining why some of America’s more hysterical politicians have variously and ludicrously called for WikiLeaks to be classified as a terrorist organisation and for Assange to be put to death; far more shocking than anything said in the cables.

Only slightly less hysterically, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week labelled Assange as “grossly irresponsible” and the publication of the cables on WikiLeaks as “illegal”.

Whether it is irresponsible or not, is a matter of opinion. But what Australian law prohibits its citizens from publishing US diplomatic emails on a European hosted website?

A little like Kelly and the stolen horse, it was someone else, let’s not forget – an employee of the US government, US Army Pt Bradley Manning — who allegedly ‘stole’ the data from their systems.

Assange merely published the documents. Is he any more guilty than the news organisations, including this one, who publish the details? If the likes of The Guardian received the cables directly from Manning, we would all be reading about them just the same.

So far, the task-force charged with determining whether WikiLeaks or its founder is in breach of any existing Australian law has yielded nothing. Until it does, what is certain is that it is Julia Gillard who is acting irresponsibly, implying that an Australian citizen is a criminal, before the violated law has even been identified or probably even written.

For Ned’s accusers, at least the laws were clear cut. For our Prime Minister, the presumption of innocence till proven guilty is a value that must be dispensed with in the absence of any charges to lay in the first place.

Again, history is echoed. In response to the Kelly Gang’s Stringybark shoot-out, the Victorian government enacted Felons’ Apprehension Act which outlawed the Kellys, dispensing with the need for a trial, making it possible for anyone to shoot them. Nonetheless, Kelly outran and even outlived the legislation, which expired before he eventually met his fate.

It’s what led to the Stringybark incident though that perhaps provides the starkest historical warning for both pursuer and pursued. In 1877, on arresting him for intoxication, the apprehending Constable Lonigan ‘black-balled’ Kelly, grabbing and squeezing hard on Ned’s testicles. The legend goes that Kelly said to Lonigan, “If I ever shoot a man, Lonigan, it’ll be you!”

The outlaw later made good on the threat, at Stringybark Creek and was eventually hanged for it.

At the time of this article’s publication, the WikiLeaks website resides at


Bryce Lowry

Bryce Lowry

Publisher and Editor of Australian Times.