Apache massacre, the BBC and rape allegations: Julian Assange at the Cambridge Union

His speech was titled “Challenges to freedom of speech in the West”.

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Julian Assange’s widely anticipated video-link speech tonight lived up to the hype in a controversy-laden speech to the Cambridge Union.

The Wikileaks Founder, currently seeking Asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, spoke to a packed out chamber about the establishment in media, the US at war and rape allegations.

The announcement and build-up to the event have stirred outrage among the student body at Cambridge University.

The Union required the speaker, accused of “lesser degree rape”,  to have his appearance approved by referendum, in an unprecedented move.

Assange told the chamber that, despite his willingness to discuss the allegations, “it does diminish the seriousness of the issues I’d like to talk about”. He went on to say that this story has only arisen due to “false reportage”, and that “no crime has been committed”.

credit: Ben Brown

He attributed allegations to an “enormous espionage case in the US” of “unprecedented size and proportion”.  At this point one woman left the chamber.

The sexual assault allegations against Assange prompted Charlotte Chorley, Women’s officer for the Cambridge University Students’ Union, to make a public statement urging members to vote against his presence.

The online referendum was held on October 22 with the question:

“Do you agree that the Cambridge Union should host Julian Assange via video link on November 11th at 7pm?”

In response to the Union’s decision to hold a referendum regarding his presence, the Union Society’s Women’s Officer Helen Dallas resigned, as she is understood to be opposed to offering a platform to a man who still faces allegations of rape.

Despite this, the referendum passed with 76.9% in favour of hosting Assange.

The topic of his speech was “Challenges to freedom of speech in the West”.

He denounced the current state of popular media in the UK, with specific reference to the BBC, claiming that it operates with the primary aim of preserving the interests of those who run it.

He said “the BBC has an obligation to understand the world for its consumers at a popular level, but it has become too influenced by other interests”, believing that due to the class system in the UK the BBC is run by the “elite power players” of London.

However since the arrival of the internet he stated that the “fluidity” of media was set to improve: “now the hoi poloi can publish anything… the irritating lower classes can speak in a way that offends the establishment.”

He also says that there is no one who he believes should be denied a platform, and that their ability to speak at a place like the Union depends on “democratic demand”.

On the topic of free speech, Assange made the decision to show Apache footage to the chamber, questioning whether the Cambridge Union would decide to censor it, as the Oxford Union did in 2013.

The graphic footage he presented, initially released by Chelsea Manning, he says was of the moment when the helicopter “mowed down eighteen people in new Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters journalists”.

After showing the footage, and despite the palpable shock among the audience, Assange flippantly remarked: “let’s see what the Cambridge Union does with that!”

When the Union Committee were questioned about the legal implications of showing the video to the chamber they declined to comment.

On the referendum, Assange commented on how the Union succumbed to “external pressure”, to which Union President Oliver Mosley responded that the 13 member Union committee made the decision to hold the referendum, and that external pressure was not a factor.

Assange responded to his comments by saying “that is all absolute nonsense”.

When asked how many of the documents published by WikiLeaks he believed to be irresponsible he said “zero”, calling WikiLeaks’ work a “matter of principle”.

He said: “If a whistle blower provides us with material of significance and under some kind of threat then we will publish it”.

He told us however, that he does not want “to oversell WikiLeaks, and oversell our achievements”, but simultaneously that “there have been multiple court cases that have used our material to free people … people have walked out of prison holding our documents above their heads”.

When asked about his quality of life he described living in the Ecuadorian embassy as like “living on a boat”, telling us that it was “difficult in some respects”, but that “the most important thing is that I’m still available to work”.

“In a practical sense my time is free, even if in every other respect I am not free”.