Julian Assange: Hacker, doting father and political provocateur

Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent
·3-min read

Throughout his tumultuous life, Julian Assange has commanded loyalty from family, friends and legions of supporters.

To his allies, the 49-year-old Australian is a political provocateur, campaigner, journalist, and freedom of speech hero.

His public image is larger than life – blown up on the side of a mobile hoarding which circled the Old Bailey as he fought for his liberty.

But behind the scenes, divorced Assange is an intensely private person, with a small clique of lifelong friends used to his character quirks.

He kept his partner Stella Moris under wraps, despite the couple having two children while he was at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Assange was born in Queensland, Australia, to artist Christine and John Shipton, an anti-war activist.

Said to be an accomplished hacker since his teens, he co-founded WikiLeaks in 2006.

John Shipton, father of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, stands in front of a support poster as he arrives at the Old Bailey
John Shipton, father of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, stands in front of a support poster as he arrives at the Old Bailey (Aaron Chown/PA)

Assange came to the fore in 2010 with the publication of damaging classified US documents.

While his activities won him high praise, it also spawned powerful enemies, with Donald Trump once calling for the death penalty.

His failure to address allegations of sexual impropriety head-on in Sweden cast a shadow, even though he denied wrongdoing and the investigation was ultimately dropped.

It was his fear of US authorities, rather than being prosecuted in Sweden, that prompted him to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.

He stayed there for nearly seven years before serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail.

Since then, he has been held on remand at Belmarsh prison as he fought extradition to the US.

The extradition case cast Assange as being a vulnerable man, who had suffered from deep depression and suicidal thoughts.

Professor Michael Kopelman diagnosed “persecutory” auditory hallucinations including hearing voices saying: “We are coming to get you.”

Assange also displayed traits of autism spectrum disorder, while remaining high functioning and intelligent.

According to his mother Christine, he “had a preference for solitary play” as a child but made a small number of friendships in his teens with “geeky” boys who shared his interest in computers

His life-long friends learned to accept “quirky, unusual or odd” aspects of his behaviour, the court heard.

Close friend Suelette Dreyfus referred to his “Edwardian style of speaking”, such as talking about Coca-Cola as mead, “like he’s been reading Jane Austen novels”.

She spoke of his “outrageous behaviour and lack of propriety”, such as moving furniture around in cafes, helping himself to condiments from another table, or going behind the bar to change the music.

Despite his recent woes, Dr Nigel Blackwood said Assange was “very resilient and resourceful”.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

While at Belmarsh jail, Assange got involved with painting, reading, exercise, and interacted well with others.

Dr Blackwood highlighted evidence of Assange being an “extraordinarily selfless father” as well as his capacity for warmth, humour and the ability to “engage in banter”.

Despite the nature of WikiLeaks, Assange’s attitude was never to publish and be damned, according to one account of events at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk where he was based.

When he learned that unredacted documents were about to made public, he was “clearly acutely troubled by the situation with which WikiLeaks was faced”, according to Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi.

Down but by no means out, Assange’s fighting spirit continued to blaze in the dock of the Old Bailey, leading to a warning against outbursts from Judge Vanessa Baraitser.

On his motivation, journalism historian Mark Feldstein said: “Assange does not pretend to be objective.

“He is in part a political provocateur and he espouses an ideology of radical transparency.

“He believes the US government’s ‘surveillance state’ keeps its citizens in the dark through government censorship and a supine mainstream media, and has become one of the world’s greatest threats to democracy.

“The antidote, in his view, are massive, well-publicised leaks to expose the truth.”