18 April 2019
Matters of Rights
Assange and Vunipola
By John Watson
Those who have played “Who would I like to ask for dinner?” will recall that the game has several layers. First you have to choose a list of interesting people, alive or dead, who you and the other players would like to meet. Then you have to work out who would sit next to who. Would Richard the Lionheart get on with Karl Marx, for example? Finally you have to look at the balance of the party as a whole and, in the more sophisticated versions, choose a menu.
There are of course people you would not want to ask in any circumstances and if you change the name of the game to “Who would I like to ask to stay?” Julian Assange falls clearly into that category. You cannot help but feel sorry for the Ecuadorians whose seven years of hospitality has, at least according to their President, been rewarded by the mistreatment of staff, being spied on by their guest, problems relating to hygiene and a law suit. Little wonder that they felt they had had enough but their guest, now surrendered to the Metropolitan police, seems destined to cause just as many problems for the UK as he previously caused for them.
First he has to face charges in the UK of failing to surrender to bail. Those carry a sentence of one year in prison, but it is the position once he has been released which is contentious as there are competing sets of extradition proceedings. The Swedes want Assange in relation to allegations of sexual assault, now being dusted down as there is a prospect of getting hold of the suspect. The US want him in relation to wikileaks. Predictably Corbyn, and assorted actresses have said that the Swedes should be preferred but that is probably just because they want to snub the US. After all, if Assange has demonstrated that giving seven years of protection earns deep ingratitude, what do the Americans expect after protecting the West for more than 60 years?
What should the Government do? Why, leave it to the Courts, of course. Commentators suggest that extradition claims have to be considered in the order in which they are made and it is understood that the Americans have got in first. If that is so the laws should take its course and the focus of litigation will be the UK/US extradition treaty.
For extradition to be carried out under the treaty, the conduct giving rise to it has to be criminal both here and in the US so any litigation about whether Mr Assange’s activities went beyond legitimate public interest journalism would be determined by reference to UK standards and the European Convention of Human Rights. The charge in the extradition claim is of conspiring to hack classified US government data and the defence will presumably hinge on the rights of the investigative journalist. How that will play out remains to be seen but finding a line between journalism and the exposure of information to do damage is likely to tax the Courts.
It is a curious coincidence that two stories about the limits of freedom of expression should arise in the same week but slightly similar issues arise in relation to the rugby player Billy Vunipola who “liked” a tweet to the effect that homosexuals and many others would go to hell before adding that “Man was made for woman to procreate, that was the goal, no?” Now, no one suggest that Vunipola is unpleasant, intolerant or that he hates anyone. Rather the contrary, in fact. The question is entirely one of religious belief, and the rugby authorities’ problem is that to do nothing damages the game’s relationship with the homosexual community whilst to damage a man’s career because of his religious beliefs goes against the grain in another direction.
Perhaps the answer to this is to step back from the big principles and to ask whether the “like” was intended to cause hatred or to incite prejudice. If it was, there should certainly be repercussions. If it was not, it may be regretted but it is not for the authorities to intervene. Still, Mr Vunipola should be aware that many will find his conduct offensive and that he would do better to keep his views to himself in future.
So there we are in both cases, the right to expression bumping into other human rights, and the authorities and possibly the Courts acting as umpire. No doubt the issues will prove to be of byzantine complexity but at least they will be more interesting than Brexit.