At the Frontline Club, a convivial hangout for journalists in London’s Paddington neighborhood, the audience was packed in tight to watch Wednesday evening’s panel debate on Occupy London—and one panelist in particular, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and current ward of the British court system. Seated onstage in a brown leather jacket, Assange looked a little weary. “I’ve had a hard day,” he told the crowd.
Hours earlier, a British high court had denied his appeal against extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question the 40-year-old Australian over allegations of sexual assault. Assange’s chances of staying put in Britain have become slimmer than ever. Though there is still some legal wrangling ahead, he could find himself in a Swedish jail by the end of the month.
In the meantime, Assange will return to the unlikely place he’s called home for the last 11 months: a 10-bedroom manor house in the British countryside, in the beautiful, rolling lands on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, surrounded by 600 acres of woods, farms, and fields. His host, who stepped in at Assange’s darkest hour last December when a court refused to let the WikiLeaks founder post bail unless he had a permanent address in Britain, is Vaughan Smith, the founder of the Frontline Club and avid campaigner for journalistic freedoms.
Smith is no ordinary WikiLeaks supporter. A former Army officer who made his name as a videographer and war correspondent, and a man with a self-professed libertarian bent, the 48-year-old Smith has allowed Assange to use his family estate as an indefinite permanent address and living quarters. (Previously, Assange had been staying in a room at the Frontline Club.) Assange has to heed certain terms of his bail—reportedly wearing an electronic ankle bracelet, and checking in with the local police station daily—but is otherwise free to run WikiLeaks from Ellingham Hall, where Smith lives with his wife and children.
At the time of Smith’s offer, he told the press that his decision to house Assange wasn’t about whether what he’d done with WikiLeaks was right or wrong; it was about “standing up to the bully” and “whether our country, in these historic times, really was the tolerant, independent, and open place I had been brought up to believe it was and feel that it needs to be." Sitting at a table at the Frontline Club before Assange’s appearance on Wednesday evening, as diners feasted on a menu of organic produce and free-range game from his manor grounds, Smith spoke about his relationship with Assange and the motivations for taking him under his roof.
“I support Julian in terms of the manner in which he is delivering us an opportunity to talk about really important stuff,” Smith says. “I think it’s important that we are encouraged to discuss secrecy in our society. It’s good for us.”
While Smith’s initial defense of Assange may have been primarily ideological, he’s grown fond of the man who has shared his home for close to a year. “I have seen a human side of him that hasn’t been represented in the press,” Smith says. “He is incredibly popular with my children, who see him as sort of an uncle figure. He’s somebody who gives you time … He’s odd, because in some regards he’s a team player, and in other regards he’s not a team player, insofar as you know he’s always very firm about his own views and doesn’t necessarily change them very often, and you can have rows with him. But he’s somebody who will listen to you, and he’s somebody who will give you time and give you attention and help you.”
On top of that, Assange makes a good companion at cocktail hour. “You can’t underestimate the importance of this, he’s damn good company over a glass of wine,” Smith says. “He’s damn good company. He’s one of these people who spends his life becoming a walking encyclopedia, so he’ll always have a view of something.”
That’s not to say the living situation has been ideal. Smith is quick to clarify: “It’s not an easy domestic arrangement. I mean, how could it be? Of course it’s been difficult, but I’m incredibly proud of my family and how we as a family have made it work, and also how Julian has made it work.”
Smith adds that the manor, which is chilly and austere in winter, is not the most ideal headquarters for a global operation like WikiLeaks. If given the choice, he contends, Assange would prefer to be elsewhere. He bristles at press reports suggesting Assange has been living large. “Come and spend the winter at my place. Come and have a crappy Internet connection that’s probably slowed down by just about everybody trying to copy all our data,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind at all that if Julian wasn’t compelled to be with me he would prefer to be in a nice London office where he can get some work done. It’s not comfortable for him.”
Still, Ellingham Hall is far preferable to the alternative, and Smith is disturbed at the prospect of what might await Assange if he is forced to return to Sweden. The Scandinavian country has no system of bail, so Assange would likely end up imprisoned as he awaited trial. “You can’t run an organization from prison. It’s hard to see any silver lining in that,” Smith says.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of this, he’s damn good company over a glass of wine.”
Smith takes particular umbrage at the heat Assange has taken for what he sees as a much-needed fight to push greater transparency on the powers that be. “I think there are lots of bullies here. I think the British press have been bullying. I think the American government have been bullies. But it’s wider than that. Essentially anybody who has an investment in the way things are today—they can be bankers, they can be members of the government, or they can be bureaucrats—can feel threatened by Julian Assange. And that’s quite a weight to take on. Julian is presented as some sort of slightly nutty proponent of radical transparency. Actually, the truth is, he isn’t anything of the sort.”
Despite a willingness in the media to leave WikiLeaks for dead, Smith believes the group will survive these current woes. “I think it would be foolish to determine WikiLeaks is over. It’s far too premature for that,” he says. “If it’s got the will to survive, and if there are whistleblowers out there who can do this sort of thing, and if they believe WikiLeaks is the right place, then WikiLeaks is going to be here in the future.”
As for his long-term guest: “I think he will survive and continue,” Smith says. “I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Assange.”