On 21 February 2014, Andrew O’Hagan gave a talk at the British Museum about his experience ghost writing Julian Assange's autobiography. The talk was followed up by a 25,000 word article that appeared in the London Review of Books (LRB), which was then picked up by the British press (including The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Independent and The Guardian) the following day.
O’Hagan's article contains several factual errors, distortions and contextual omissions.
At the beginning of the LRB article, O’Hagan states that Assange was “worried [about] how quickly the book had to be written” and felt that “it would be hard to establish a structure that would work.” As it happens, these two issues came to define the collapse of the $2.5 million Canongate book deal.
Judging from events, Canongate's time framing (willingness to wait before publishing) was just seven months (December 2010 to June 2011), and while Assange knew the structure he wanted (a mixture of manifesto and biography), O’Hagan was to prove unwilling to facilitate it, describing the ideas that led to the creation of WikiLeaks as “undergraduate lecturing about freedom.” O’Hagan then clearly states that his opinion translated into a reluctance to engage: “I knew there was nothing I could use: it was all standard-grade Voltaire with a smattering of Chomsky.”
From literally day one O’Hagan and Assange were at cross-purposes.
The thinking behind WikiLeaks is, as anyone would expect, an evolving patchwork of ideas that is, above all else, not so easily pigeonholed. The story of what occurred when these ideas came into contact with reality, how they were adapted and where this process might lead, could certainly have been made into a serious and entertaining book. That is what Assange wanted:
The book should be a manifesto of my ideas. It should be like moral essays. And it should have a plot. Not with personal stuff but a sense of transition.
When pressed on this content issue, O’Hagan moved from a position of dismissing the political dimension of the autobiography to openly refusing to work on it, telling Assange“I don’t know if I can help you with that”. And:
Jamie Byng gave me assurances that Canongate would never, […] publish the book without my consent. We would agree to restructure the book and the deadline, and draw up a new contract.
On 7 September, Canongate informed my agent that they wanted to print the unauthorised book Monday, 19 September 2011.
By March 2011 Assange had already written extensively about his beliefs, all O’Hagan had to do was request the URLs or use Google. An unofficial WikiLeaks manifesto has existed since 2006, John Pilger's lengthy 2010 interview and a 21,000-word February 2011 e-flux interview all show the quality of the material that was available to O’Hagan.
Instead of getting on with his job, O’Hagan complained that “[Assange] produced nothing [towards the manifesto] in all the months I was there. Not a single written sentence came from him in all that time” and yet on 5 April Assange published precisely what O’Hagan wanted in The New Statesman. Further, the idea that a hired writer could not rework transcripts of Assange's endless (and often amusing) monologues on this subject because 'he doesn't believe in it' is as implausible as it is unprofessional.
The fact is, O’Hagan did not like his brief (preferring instead to keep the autobiography within more familiar territory) and Assange felt that his autobiography ought to be (within reason) his. The article reveals a discomfort with the limited creative freedom that the role of a hired writer entails. After all, in a sense the book was not actually O’Hagan's work and he was not the author, Assange was. It is clear that O’Hagan found it very difficult to accept that Assange was not interested in what he wanted and had his own ideas.
In a telling inversion O’Hagan writes “the man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own” and killed the book because “he wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.” The reason why Assange was “not at all interested in a book that is personal” was because he did not want his book to intrude upon the private lives of people associated with him. He did not want friends, ex-girlfriends and family members harmed by the book. O’Hagan responsed to these concerns with sophism: “the book could become an argument about disclosure, about the difference between secrets of a political kind, on the one hand, and the tabloid hunt for salacious details about private lives, on the other. The book, I said, should be revealing on all fronts, but also be frank about revelation itself.” In this passage O’Hagan also wrote “I could have raised several flags on top of each of [Assange's] sentences” however, this sentiment seems to mostly apply to himself.
These two positions, O’Hagan's desire for a sensationalist tell-all and Assange's determination not to prostitute his and others' lives, proved impossible to reconcile. Assange:
But you (Assange) have to write that. A manifesto comes from belief. It can’t be second-guessed or ghostwritten.
It took Canongate 175 days to complete O’Hagan's draft manuscript. A WikiLeaks statement pre-empted Canongate's secret publication announcement (22 September 2011) by several hours and the unauthorised book achieved limited success.
This cross-purpose also included Canongate. O’Hagan's article (unknowingly) describes the time-worn creative conflict that can occur between a publisher wanting a mainstream hit and an author (or in this case, a subject) who wants to produce something genuinely left-field. O’Hagan tries to frame this issue in terms of the Canongate contract which stipulated that a “life story” was required, but Assange's intentions were not necessarily in breach of it and, if needed, a new contract could have been arranged. There should not have been any controversy between the parties involved, with some patience the book would have be completed in early 2012 and its moderately unique (in biographical terms) form could have been a major sales asset.
In the end O’Hagan created a draft (of 70,000 words that had taken only 85 days to produce) which was in keeping with Canongate's wishes and delivered it to them for review via his research assistant (and Canongate employee) Harry Stopes on 31 March. According to O’Hagan, Canongate “were thrilled, it was just what they’d hoped for.”
The literary world is filled with accounts of draft manuscripts being effectively stolen by publishers and Assange recognised that his insistence on a degree of creative control over his own book might induce such a scenario. To avoid this, he asked Stopes (in O’Hagan's presence) to maintain control over the manuscript while Canongate reviewed it. Stopes agreed to do this.
If Assange had known that Stopes worked for Canongate, he would have requested that someone impartial conduct the review invigilation. However, neither O’Hagan nor Stopes had bothered to tell him about this conflict of interest and, unsurprisingly, Stopes allowed the publishers to take “custody of the manuscript.” When Assange suggested that this was a betrayal of his authorship, O’Hagan replied “this is ludicrous” and Stopes said (after Assange was safely out of the room): “what a prat.”
The moment Canongate controlled a copy, the gravity of money took over and the task of steering the project towards Assange's objectives became a certain impossibility; not least because of O’Hagan's refusal to cooperate with his subject. In the LRB article O’Hagan described Assange's concerns of what might (and then did) happen to the draft in terms of a childlike irrationality. But even a child could not fail to recognise that Canongate's possession of the draft evaporated Assange's negotiating position.
After 31 March, the project continued behind Canongate's doors and nothing that happened beyond them was of much consequence. And yet, O’Hagan again states that it was up to Assange to “write the ‘vision bit’” and that he needed to “mark up the draft, showing what was publishable” as though the exterior writing process was anything other than a farce.
Perhaps O’Hagan thought that just because Canongate had gained control of the process, it meant that Assange had to suddenly acquiesce? If that was his thinking, it was misguided. In June, the two of them were still arguing the same points as in January; and considering the obviousness of the situation, one can only assume that Assange still hoped to persuade O’Hagan that something more imaginative than plot-point cards and tabloidism could be achieved.
When it became apparent to O’Hagan that Assange's position was unalterable, he wrote that “the ship was going down” - quite, but this was his and Canongate's choice.
It seems that Assange's intentions for his autobiography were as alien to O’Hagan and Canongate as the work of WikiLeaks was. It was a case of a conservative mindset meeting an 'outside context problem'. The solution, once a more creative brief than expected was given, was either to get on board or get off, but as O’Hagan said “the story was just too large.”
And the story indeed proved to be “too large” for O’Hagan, whose inability to think outside his own box resulted in a failure to understand even the most basic aspects of WikiLeaks' work. O’Hagan states that “the cables have never had the dedicated attention they deserve. [..] I always hoped someone would do a serious editing job, ordering them country by country, contextualising each one, providing a proper introduction, detailing each injustice and each breach..” However, WikiLeaks has never had the resources necessary for this type of archiving. There are 251,287 cables. At two hours per cable, with archivists working on minimum wage, O'Hagan's idea would cost £3,171,241 (were it to be done in-house by WikiLeaks). In 2011, WikiLeaks ran a deficit of £429,851. Further, cable analysis was conducted by WikiLeaks' 100 regional media partners. These specialist journalists held the local knowledge needed to examine and assess the cables and their work was catalogued in the WikiLeaks cable archive. Perhaps if WikiLeaks had not lost millions of pounds due to the U.S. extralegal financial blockade (which began within ten days of the launch of Cablegate), 'O’Hagan's archive' could have been constructed as a luxury. As things stand, it is not a realistic priority. That O’Hagan was unable to recognise even the most fundamental realities faced by WikiLeaks shows a profound lack of understanding, which begs the question why did he take the job?
In places, the unconscious insights and ironies of O’Hagan's narrative “could rock you off your feet”. For instance, he states that he had to “remind [Assange] that creative people, including creative writers, could not be stopped from going their own way”. And that is what happened, with the uncreative element (Canongate) stating: “We’re publishing the book and this is the book we want to publish” and Julian Assange stating:
The entire book was to be heavily modified, extended and revised, in particular, to take into account the privacy of the individuals mentioned in the book.
Update: A recent (Novermber 2014), LRB blog discussion has examined Andrew O’Hagan’s article. Harry Stopes (the former Canongate employee and research assistant to O’Hagan) takes part in the debate, as does the author of the blog post (Bernard Porter) and several knowledgable WikiLeaks supporters.