How Assange's dud conference got attention

NICK MILLER
Last updated 12:46 19/08/2014
Assange
Reuters

MEDIA CIRCUS: Members of the media wait outside the Ecuadorian embassy during a news conference by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in central London.

Assange to leave embassy soon

Assange
Reuters
THIRSTY WORK: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has a drink of water during a news conference at the Ecuadorian embassy.

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OPINION: Briefly, the world's dullest game of hide and seek became the world's most compelling news event.

Media rushed down to the Ecuadorian embassy behind Harrods department store in London.

Cameras lined the pavement opposite. Police gathered. A truck turned up with crowd barriers. Police cleared the pavement. Tourists whispered dumbstruck questions. Passing delivery trucks slowed as the drivers took selfies.

The world's most fascinating fugitive, Julian Assange, whistleblower, cybernaut, white-haired beardy futurist, was about to walk free.

Wasn't he? Right?

A snowflake of speculation had triggered an avalanche of excitement in the silly season, the British term for summer months news lull when more friviolous stories get more attention.

"Assange could be planning to surrender," Sky News had gambled, a few hours earlier. The intro to their story was as vague as you can possibly be before you don't actually have a story any more, but there it was.

It's not clear why they speculated this, though a Sunday of tabloid exaggerations about Assange's ill health could have helped, and Sky had to report something, because news was about to happen and they had to appear to know all about it, because that's what 24/7 news outfits do. (An email to Sky News was not immediately answered.)

In the previous week Assange had scheduled a press conference in a small room (they are all small rooms) in the embassy for Monday. The select group of reporters were predicting another round of the usual: Assange's optimistic interpretation of law that surely must mean his eventual freedom, a reprise of his frustration. The Ecuadorian foreign minister was in town, so it might trigger some development.

And then the Sky story. And then news cameras lined the street. The chosen few entered the embassy for the press conference. The rest hunkered round the live feed on mobile phones, or called their news desks for updates.

And... 

What was that? After a long reitiration of his legal woes, did Assange say he was leaving "soon"? He did, right?

Sure he did. It was enough for all: There was some news.

Actual news, actual summer holiday news, that wasn't about the weather, or the cricket, or something overseas. Assange will leave the embassy "soon".

And that was that. Story done. An embassy security chap walked out to tell the media nothing else would happen that day - but everyone had kind of realised that already.

Assange didn't actually leave the embassy. He never intended to.

Assange didn't actually say he was going to leave the embassy, even. He said someone else had reported he would, and he coyly, perhaps deliberately, let the media hear what it wanted to hear, and he left it up to them to edit the video so the context was missing.

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He didn't leave.

The only question is: were the media played? Did Assange, or WikiLeaks, deliberately leak this rumour, to get the world's cameras down to Knightsbridge to shine a fresh spotlight on his legal limbo and his plea to end this ridiculous standoff?

Was this all a stunt?

Or was it just an over-eager media clutching at straws in the midst of the month, of all months in England, when straws must be clutched?

I can't tell you. Sorry.

Some news stories are the first draft of history, and other times they're the bits that, when you go back to them later, were the moments that genuinely didn't matter.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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