Narcissism is the curse of our age. Celebrity is its more familiar manifestation, spawning countless magazines and TV shows, but its tentacles have spread into every area of public life. France has recently terminated an unhappy experiment with a hyperactive president, suggesting that its appetite for constant self-promotion has its limits. Now a similar proposition is being tested in the UK by the saga of the hacker, Julian Assange.
The news that the increasingly eccentric founder of WikiLeaks had sought political asylum in Knightsbridge, of all places, was greeted with equal measures of disbelief and hilarity. The London embassy of Ecuador is convenient for Harrods, although I don’t imagine that was a major consideration when Assange walked into the building on Tuesday afternoon.
His line is that he has been “abandoned” by his home country, Australia, which has failed to protect him from the threat of extradition to the US and the death penalty. The Australian government has a different story, but it’s all part of Mr Assange’s riveting psychodrama, in which this fearless champion of human rights has been kept under “house arrest” without charge in the UK for 500 days. That is what Assange told Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, in a TV interview last month.
The super-hacker appears to be relaxed about links with authoritarian regimes, presenting a chat show for ‘Russia Today’, a state-funded TV network, and seeking asylum in a Latin American country with a not exactly admirable record on freedom of expression. Assange quickly established a rapport with Mr Correa, who teased him during the interview, waved a book about WikiLeaks and addressed him warmly as “Julian”. I’ve seldom seen such a feeble interrogation, but it did at least put paid to the risible notion that Mr Assange is a journalist.
Mr Assange is a fabulist, someone who stretches and distorts the truth to make himself look exciting in the eyes of his diminishing band of followers. He has never been under house arrest in Britain, although his bail conditions, which he has now breached, require him to stay at the same address every night. He makes much of the fact that he hasn’t been charged with any offence in Sweden, but that is because he has employed every trick in the book to avoid going back to answer serious allegations of sexual misconduct. The Swedish authorities have accused him of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one of rape, and they’ve been trying to question him for almost two years.