"He's stolen classified documents!" thunders the government.
"He's put countless innocent lives in danger!" screams the military.
"He's an evil hacker and a rapist!" squeals the media.
"He hates cats!" shrieks a disaffected ex-colleague.
None of those statements are actually true: nobody in a position to know is seriously alleging that WikiLeaks has "stolen" any files, nor that a single life has been endangered by their actions; Assange quit hacking 20 years ago, after a single court case that did not involve malicious damage, and still has not even been charged over those Swedish sexual allegations (which even if true are not considered criminal in other countries).
Oh, and that cat? Not as traumatised as it's owner, apparently.
So let's be clear. Julian Assange is no evil Bond villain. In fact, reporters who meet Assange routinely comment on how surprisingly likeable he is.
But of course, that does not prove that the enigmatic Australian is NOT a "dangerous radical". It all depends on who is defining those terms, and how.
As usual, most of the defining is being done through the Western media, where attitudes to WikiLeaks have become increasingly poisonous. Is that because editors obediently parrot the political stances of their corporate overlords? Or is it because highly-placed journalists see WikiLeaks' brand of truth-telling as yet another assault on their privileged social role? Probably a bit of both.
While the government keeps its boot on Assange's throat, some news organisations are hoping to steal WikiLeaks' thunder by providing their own proprietary "drop-boxes". But will it work? Do these organisations still have the credibility - not to mention the technical expertise - to attract endangered whistle-blowers?
Here's Julian Assange's scathing assessment:
"[Newspaper] organizations could create such a site if they cared about it. But it’s our experience that at least the Guardian and New York Times don’t care so much to protect sources. In fact, for Cablegate the Guardian and the New York Times communicated over phones. They swapped cables over email. The New York Times approached the White House with its list of stories it was going to publish on the cables one week before publication, and campaigned against the alleged source of the cables, Bradley Manning.
"We also cannot be sure that they would even publish the stories they receive. The New York Times sat on the story about the National Security Agency mass-tapping Americans for over a year. CBS sat on the story of the torture at Abu Ghraib for months."
WikiLeaks only approached these media organisations because earlier efforts to engage bloggers and citizen journalists had failed to generate broader public awareness of leaked material. The latest decision to release over 140,000 cables for investigation by the online community suggests a return to that citizen journalist model. Assange appears to be rightly disgusted with the "mainstream" media, and determined to find a new way to communicate directly with the public.
But it's not just WikiLeaks moving away from traditional media to online communication. The general public is also moving rapidly away from untrusted sources towards Internet news sites and social media. As Assange proudly declared to the audience at Australia's recent Splendour In the Grass festival:
"This generation is burning the mass media to the ground. We are reclaiming our rights to world history. We are ripping open secret archives from Washington to Cairo. We are reclaiming the rights to share ourselves and our times with each other — to be the writers and agents of our own history. We don’t know yet exactly where we are. But we can see where we are going. The change in perspective that has happened over the last year is what this generation is going to use to find our lighthouse. And when we get there, we’ll turn the fucking spotlight on."
Such revolutionary rhetoric is designed to shock, and no doubt leaves many uninformed observers intentionally flustered. But WikiLeaks supporters tend to be well educated on current events, including global politics, finance and civil rights. They have seen the way governments, business and the media have systematically mistreated WikiLeaks and misrepresented Assange, and they understand that Western Democracy is now under serious threat.
As Becky Hogge wrote of WikiLeaks staffers in her seminal book Barefoot Into Cyberspace:
"They’re not terrorists. They’re not killing anyone. They’re simply getting out the truth. WikiLeaks confuse us because they look like a revolution, albeit one predicated on information, not violence. And you shouldn’t need a revolution in a democracy."
You shouldn't, but it seems we do. Addressing Berlin's Chaos Computer Club in December, former WikiLeaks member Rop Gonggrip expressed our current reality in even starker terms:
"As for the future: it’s going to be a mess. But I calmed down a lot when I decided for myself that this is not only bad news. Let’s face it: the current situation was never sustainable anyway."
That seems a good explanation of where we are right now. Climate change and looming global financial Armageddon are just the most obvious signs of a system that is dysfunctional on multiple levels. Our political and business leaders seem incapable of even acknowledging these harsh realities, let alone solving them. Yet they increasingly move to stifle dissent, control the flow of information, and impose ever more draconian laws, while routinely absolving themselves of any scrutiny.
In such circumstances, the following series of tweets from @WikiLeaks (widely assumed to be authored by Assange) is perhaps less radical than it first appears. Read it carefully:
"It is clear that the rule of law is breaking down all over the West. Many are now held for days or years without charge.
"As such we can drop any pretense of legitimate governance. It is just one wretched, scheming network of patronage and power.
"It is not reformable, although it might be destroyable. We must create our own networks of trust and authority and live within them."
Assange's lawyers must have nightmares reading such things. It takes a brave person to speak truth to power so directly.
So does Assange really want to destroy the "network" of modern government? Or is he just goading Western authorities to implement real reforms? Either way, the ball is in the government's court.
They can prove Assange wrong by releasing him from arrest, abandoning their harrassment of WikiLeaks, and ordering groups like Visa, Mastercard and PayPal to lift their financial blockade. They can implement more transparent government procedures, outlaw the foul influence of lobbyists, neutralise media monopolies, fix the environment and create a more equitable society.
Or they can continue down their current path, ignoring the lessons of the London riots and the Arab Spring, and hope to avoid the fate of the dictators they so recently supported.
The general public have nothing to fear from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, whose growing popularity heralds only the disappearance of an already untenable status quo. It is the powers that be who are rightly panicked. And the more they distort the law to serve their purposes, the more we can smell their fear.