I pushed my way through the jostling crowd of tourists, clamouring as they do outside the Brompton Road entrance to Knightsbridge tube station. One of Harrods’ green men stood propping a door open and it was all I could do to resist the seemingly gravitational pull that drew the crowd of which I was a part towards the entrance of London’s most famous shopping destination. With a final twist and a lunge I broke free of the throng and surveyed my newfound surroundings, trying to identify my destination. Hans Crescent – straight ahead.
The Embassy sat across the road, a flag of Ecuador marking each corner of the red brick building. This was certainly it then, he was in there somewhere. As if I needed confirmation, a police officer stood sentry outside the entrance atop a short flight of steps while on the opposite side of the road was a Metropolitan Police van and two other cars that looked conspicuously inconspicuous. I stopped, then ambled past casually, glancing at the ground floor windows as I passed. I reached the end of the building and turned around, wondering what to do. I decided that lingering around hesitantly for too long might arouse suspicion (with hindsight I doubt it but at the time I felt as though my task was a clandestine one).
I approached the steps where the police officer stood and, as one does when faced with steps, walked up them. I greeted the officer and began to explain why I was there. Would it be possible to go inside and talk with Julian? I genuinely had not considered that the police officer would find my request amusing, let alone that he would go and ask. I stood and waited, looking at the police van. Were they watching me?
The police officer returned and ushered me inside. ‘Bloody hell, is this going to work?’ I thought. That thought was closely followed by two others: ‘I’m completely unprepared!’ and ‘I’ll miss my train if it does.’ The gentleman behind the reception asked me to explain again.
‘They don’t usually accept visitors’ he told me, ‘but I can check.’
He went to an impressively sized door and knocked a few times.
‘They’ll be out in a moment.’
I had not planned this far ahead. How do you explain persuasively to a member of a foreign embassy that you’d like to ‘come in for a chat’ with an individual they were giving asylum to? An individual facing extradition to Sweden should he set foot outside of the flat.
A second officer who had the warmer job that day of standing duty inside evidently found my visit to be a welcome break. We chatted for a few minutes about what my PhD was about and why I was here, now, trying to get into Ecuador. It didn’t seem too unreasonable a request when we thought about it.
‘He’s not going anywhere is he!’ said police officer number two. I explained that it really was an opportunity too good to miss.
The door opened. I could see now it was a door of bank vault proportions. A small gentleman appeared. For the third time I explained why I was there. I received a one-word response that, to my surprise was not ‘no’.
‘Documents?’ I don’t know how to describe the Ecuadorian accent but if you can imagine it, this was it.
My lack of planning struck me again. I fumbled around in my bag and drew out my wallet. What would do? The best I could offer was my university student card and my driving license, which he took. With hindsight, again, I ask myself why I gave him my license; mild panic no doubt, he certainly didn’t care I was entitled to drive a car. The door closed.
Minutes ticked away. I started to rehearse opening questions. At least I had a voice recorder with me; that was a Good Thing.
The door opened again. The diminutive doorman passed me my ‘documents’ and gave me a second one-word response.
‘Can I make an appointment to come back again?’
‘No.’ The door shut.
Resignedly, I bid farewell to the receptionist and the police officers and headed back towards Harrods and the crowds. At least my left hand had been in Ecuador that day. I wondered if I could claim overseas travel expenses.
I am rather proud of this anecdote. When I tell people, fellow researchers in particular, I enjoy the usual response of amusement mixed with incredulity. It is not often as social researchers that we get to be spontaneous or recruit public figures for our research; ‘access’ is a lamented topic across the disciplines and one that often requires much negotiation and forethought. Access is made even more difficult if your intended respondent is facing extradition.
I had been in London conducting two other interviews as part of my PhD fieldwork that day, when I decided to chance my arm. My research on surveillance, resistance and the Internet is centred on a case study of WikiLeaks and as such I had wondered for a long time about whether negotiating an interview with Julian Assange would be possible. I do not know if there was any chance of meeting with Assange that day. He has after all given numerous interviews during his time at Hans Crescent; maybe he just wasn’t feeling particularly hospitable or, more likely, maybe my profile as a lowly doctoral researcher was not of sufficient merit to raise his interest. Even so, Lady Gaga had met him for dinner, why should I be any different?
One thing I have learned during the course of my fieldwork is persistence. It comes in two phases. We should all begin from the stance that ‘you never know until you ask’ – true, this particular story did not end in success but I would have been frustrated with myself had I not taken the opportunity to try it out. Second, if asking doesn’t work, try asking again. And again. And then find someone close to them and ask them.
To prove my point I did have success with WikiLeaks (in one form) during an earlier stage of my fieldwork and it was this made me pursue an interview with Assange so doggedly. Recruiting this participant took some effort, although not as a result of an unwillingness to participate. The process was something like this:
1. Email organisation, receive positive response. Request forwarded to participant.
2. No response from participant, email organisation again.
3. Repeat Steps 1-2.
4. No response from participant. Lift cc’d email address from correspondence, email participant directly.
5. Receive response from participant agreeing to interview.
6. Time goes by, no correspondence. Organisation disappears from the Internet.
7. Google participant’s wife. Email participant’s wife.
8. Positive response, request forwarded to participant.
9. Receive response from participant, set date for interview via Skype.
Back on the chase, a follow-up letter to Assange, formally requesting an interview and written on official Cardiff University headed paper was met with silence. Emails to WikiLeaks were met with unhelpful responses. Eventually, I put my prior experience into practice and did what any self-respecting researcher would do; I emailed his Mum. Christine (Ms. Assange) responded to my request to forward a message to Julian but told me not to be offended if he did not reply given that he receives thousands of emails. I was, therefore, not offended when I was contacted by WikiLeaks (on Christmas Day bizarrely) explaining that Julian was not giving interviews at that time. Maybe it was the festive spirit or the Buck’s Fizz but I didn’t mind. I had tried…a lot.
During the course of my research I have come across the following adage: The Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it. I think this is a useful metaphor; if during the course of your own fieldwork you are presented with an obstacle, find another way. Or, at the very least, try to find another way; you never know what might work.