WASHINGTON (Reuters) - He laid bare the secrets of governments and corporations. But until now, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fiercely fought demands for more transparency in his own personal and financial affairs.
But a bizarre dispute between Assange and a Scottish publisher who last week released an “unauthorized” version of Assange’s autobiography has prompted the WikiLeaks frontman to make public some of his own secrets.
Late on Tuesday, WikiLeaks published a sheaf of e-mail correspondence and transcripts of phone conversations between Assange, his literary agent and lawyers, and Canongate, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The publisher signed a book deal with Assange shortly after he was released last December from the London prison where he was briefly held following a Swedish request for his extradition for questioning in a sexual misconduct case.
The correspondence, published as an appendix to an earlier Assange statement complaining bitterly about Canongate’s release last week of “Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography”, offers rare disclosures by Assange about his personal finances and well-being, and those of WikiLeaks.
“At least until the Swedish case ends that’s how my life is — full of constant struggles and interventions,” Assange complained to a Canongate executive in a phone call in early June. “I can’t not respond to these things that put me and the organization in jeopardy.”
The financial picture presented by Assange’s disclosures is ambiguous and confusing. It surfaces as Assange awaits a court ruling on his long legal fight against extradition.
According to figures published by Assange, the financial deal that he signed with Canongate ought to have brought him a level of financial reward commensurate with what he and his supporters regard as his status as an anti-secrecy crusader and international celebrity.
In a transcript of a June 16, 2011 phone call he had with a Canongate representative, Assange talks of how 250,000 sterling he got as a book advance were under the control of Finers Stephens Innocent, a London law firm which represented him in the extradition case.
Assange claims that the advance was transferred to the lawyers “wholly without my consent,” and that the law firm was refusing to release it due to a billing dispute.
Mark Stephens, the lawyer who principally represented Assange, declined comment.
It’s unclear why Assange chose to publish details of his personal affairs at this juncture. He did not respond to requests for further comment.
In other newly-published correspondence, Assange discloses for the first time what he says Canongate agreed to pay him if his book was completed as planned. Assange’s lawyers claimed in a September 12 letter to Canongate that the publisher owed Assange 225,000 sterling on delivery of a completed manuscript and another 175,000 sterling on the book’s release in Britain.
Together with the advance, this meant the book deal was apparently worth at least 650,000 sterling to Assange — more than $1 million at current exchange rates.
It is not clear whether this figure included an advance payment to Assange from U.S. publisher Knopf, or whether it included payments intended for Andrew O’Hagan, a British author who agreed to be Assange’s ghost-writer.
A former member of Assange’s inner circle said that, with additional revenues anticipated from deals Canongate struck with foreign-language publishers, the total received by Assange could have run as high as 2 million sterling — one of the biggest such deals since former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s memoirs.
However, Nick Davies, Canongate’s publishing director, told Reuters that while his company at one point had lined up 38 international publishers to put out local editions of the book (as well as Knopf), these publishers walked away when it became clear the book was in trouble.
Davies said that in March, when a first draft of the book was due to be delivered, Assange began to show disaffection with the project. “He felt it was and is too personal,” Davies said, adding that Assange later declared: “All memoir is prostitution.”
Davies said Canongate made various efforts to resurrect the deal and draw Assange back into it, including a proposal that Assange would get another six months to fix the book. However, Assange failed to deliver, at one point informing the publisher that he had lost all of the work he had done to fix it through a computer glitch — an explanation which Davies said “rang alarm bells” given Assange’s reputation as a computer wizard.
Earlier this month, Davies said, the publisher gave Assange a final opportunity to serve up a “new vision and timeline” for the book. But Canongate warned Assange it would go ahead and publish a draft which had been finished by O’Hagan in March with or without Assange’s assent if he didn’t cooperate.
In reply, Assange threatened Canongate with an injunction to stop publication. The injunction has not materialized.
Canongate then went ahead with a well-publicized launch of Assange’s “unauthorized” memoir. Davies said the publisher had to “mitigate our losses” because when they asked Assange for their advance back, he admitted he had signed a paper instructing his agent to turn the money over to his lawyers. The publisher concluded Assange was “never” going to be able to repay the advance, Davies said.
After the publisher went ahead with publication, Assange complained, “This book was meant to be about my life’s struggle for justice through knowledge.”
“It has turned into something else. The events surrounding its unauthorized publication by Canongate are not about freedom of information — they are about old-fashioned opportunism and duplicity — screwing people over to make a buck,” Assange said in a statement posted on WikiLeaks.
So far, the book is turning out to be a bonanza for nobody, with UK sales for the first three days of publication totaling 644 copies. Davies said Canongate hopes sales will pick up steam, and says some of his firm’s erstwhile foreign-language partners have expressed interest in returning to the fold.
For the moment, however, the publisher said, “The only person who has made any money out of this is Julian. He’s got our advance money.”
Editing by Warren Strobel and Anthony Boadle