First aired on Q (29/9/11)
As the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange has overseen the release of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military reports. Now he's getting what some feel is a taste of his own medicine.
Recently, his memoir was published in the U.K. despite his vociferous opposition. He issued a strongly worded statement accusing publisher Canongate Books of "profiteering from an unfinished and erroneous draft" and suggesting that it had always "had a secret plan to publish the manuscript without consent."
Nick Davies, publishing director of Canongate and editor of the book Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography, gave his side of the story to Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview.
Davies explained that the press first met with Assange in December 2010, when he signed a contract to write an autobiography. Over the following three months, Assange sat down with his ghostwriter, acclaimed Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, and spent 50 to 60 hours putting his story onto tape, in response to O'Hagan's questions. A first draft of the book was delivered at the end of March, and at that point the first signs of trouble arose.
"Julian just started to put the brakes on the whole project," Davies said. "At the time he was quite vague about what he didn't like about that first draft, but one of the things he said was he thought it was too personal, " a comment that Davis considered strange, given that it was an autobiography.
In his statement, Assange also accuses Canongate of "old-fashioned opportunism and duplicity, screwing people over to make a buck." Davies's response: "The only person who's made a buck out of this book right now is Julian Assange." The WikiLeaks founder accepted an advance, he pointed out, but didn't fulfill his end of the bargain.
In June, Assange told Canongate that he wanted to cancel the contract. Davis says that Canongate was agreeable, on the condition that Assange return the advance. But Assange had used the funds to pay legal costs, so was unable to do so.
Assange also writes in his statement that he and his ghostwriter had intended to make substantial revisions, for accuracy and to protect the privacy of people mentioned. But Davies contends that the WikiLeaks founder was given ample opportunity to revise the first draft. "In five and a half months he has never put a single thing on paper to Canongate, in terms of an edit, a rewrite or any specific concerns," Davies said.
Why did the project go so badly awry? Davies speculates that Assange simply "got nervous" at seeing his life set down on paper. He was in "a difficult situation," Davis said: he couldn't return the advance, nor was he willing to work on a new version of the book. According to Davies, Assange was given "every opportunity to finish the book, and if not finish it, then propose a new direction for the book. "
When Assange didn't respond, Davies says that he was sent a letter advising him that Canongate had no other option than to publish the first draft, which the editors felt was strong. "We've been transparent and honest with Julian about our intention to publish this book," he added.
Davies welcomes the fact that people are starting to focus more on the book than the controversy surrounding it. He feels that Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography should be of interest to readers no matter where they stand on WikiLeaks, because it's a "balanced and nuanced portrait" that offers insight into Assange's character.
"Julian's positive and negative traits come across very clearly," Davis said. "So you can understand him as a human being, and as a result of that, the work of WikiLeaks."
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, CBC Books incorrectly identified the ghostwriter as Howard O'Hagan, instead of the correct author, Andrew O'Hagan. CBC Books regrets the error.
Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography
by Julian Assange
Buy this book at:
From Canongate Books:
"In December 2010, Julian Assange signed a contract with Canongate Books to write a book - part memoir, part manifesto - for publication the following year. At the time, Julian said: 'I hope this book will become one of the unifying documents of our generation. In this highly personal work, I explain our global struggle to force a new relationship between the people and their governments.' In the end, the work was to prove too personal..."
Read more at Canongate Books.