One of many reasons I love reading about crime on Wikipedia is the marvellous pieces of unintentional comedy you get at the end of an article in the list of internal links. Beneath the entry for the Hay poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong, for instance, comes:
Poisoners | People executed by hanging | Executed English people | English people convicted of murder | Alumni of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge
Even finer is the tailpiece to the entry on Fred West:
English rapists | British people convicted of child sexual abuse | People convicted of theft | English serial killers | Parents who killed their children | People who committed suicide in prison custody | People from Herefordshire
Armstrong was hanged in 1922 for the murder of his wife, poisoned with arsenic the solicitor had bought to kill dandelions in his garden. (A few years ago I surreptitiously lifted several dandelions from the garden of his former house; I replanted them at home, where they proved surprisingly resilient.)
The Hay crime is one of those classic English murder cases, matched only by Raymond Chandler’s favourite, the 1931 murder of Julia Wallace at 29 Wolverton Street in Anfield. Such is the English monopoly of classic crime, even the French rely on the 1952 killing of an English family (at a roadside campsite) for their own great mystery of the last century, the inexplicable murder of Sir Jack Drummond, his wife and ten-year-old daughter.
What’s fascinating about all these cases, along with modern examples such as the murder of Meredith Kercher, is the extraordinary weight we attach to the demeanour of the suspect even before any hard evidence has come to light. Armstrong ordered his servants to reopen the curtains after the servants had closed them in mourning; Amanda Knox’s unconcern probably appeared even more incomprehensible to the Italians than to us. Julia Wallace’s husband William was a cold fish. The Dominicis, suspects for the Drummond murder, were communists, and were mistrustful of the authorities in what was recently Vichy France.
Yet there is also that extraordinary photograph of a grinning Fred West, surrounded by policemen all laughing along uproariously at his joke. A man definitely guilty of far worse crimes, but who could josh along with anyone when it mattered. Is that why he got away with it for so long? As my grandfather used to say, ‘One man can steal a horse and another can’t look over a fence.’
But hard as I try never to be swayed by an unfortunate manner, I am still wary of Julian Assange. Sorry, but there it is. If the WikiLeaks frontman were a chubby, bearded, Californian ex-hippy, or someone with a clear sense of mischief, I would know what his motivation was and understand it. But since I saw him speak in Oxford this July, I have found his motives unfathomable — except perhaps for vanity. Rightly or wrongly, this makes me suspicious.
It sounds feeble and prejudicial, I know. The trouble is, concerning matters of privacy, it is an individual’s motivation and character that are all we have to go on. I truly don’t think there are ever clear-cut, inviolable rules to determine what information should be leaked and what shouldn’t. Individual judgment is all you have left.
Assange’s code-name as a hacker was Mendax, from the phrase ‘splendide mendax’ in the Horatian ode. This may suggest he understands the ambiguity at the heart of what WikiLeaks is attempting. Or it might not.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.