From Bomaderry to the Old Bailey
By Eric EllisSeptember 6, 2012
If Hollywood wanted to cast Julian Assange’s young Australian lawyer … they couldn’t do better than the woman herself — Jennifer Robinson, whose energy and intellect are propelling her to notoriety in global cases where technology, freedom of speech and human rights intersect.
JENNIFER ROBINSON is baffled.
And that's not the natural state of this peppy jurist, defender of whistleblowers, daughter of tiny Berry on New South Wales's south coast now ascending the rarified legal heights of Cavendish Square, London W1 and jurisdictions beyond.
I've asked her to clarify what seems an elliptical answer to a legal journal that had asked what the word 'law' meant to her.
She'd responded with just one word — 'Jude' — and words matter to lawyers. Particularly a self-described 'legal nerd' like this Bahasa-speaking graduate of Australian National University's (ANU) Asian Studies and Law faculties, via Indonesia's storied Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) and a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford's Balliol College, too.
Robinson's 'Jude' appears an academic, even wry, riposte, perhaps evoking the Epistle of Jude, a Biblical canon about faithfulness and virtue, of discipline and resisting intemperance; de rigeur values for an advocate exciting the international human rights stage.
Robinson, you see, is fast becoming an eloquent activist for the world's downtrodden and disenfranchised, and is defending WikiLeaks and the divisive Julian Assange too, pro bono, at what many of her more-monied 'learned friends' scorn as the touchy-feely end of the legal spectrum.
And she is doing so while helping shape three of the most significant cases defining modern media, free speech, privacy and transparency: the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, WikiLeaks and Assange (she's the telegenic blonde in severe legal garb at his side exiting the courts), and the plight of alleged 'Cablegate' WikiLeaker, the US soldier Bradley Manning.
But reminded of her 'Jude' remark, the Robinson brow knots, perplexed at what I'm rabbiting on about. The Bible? Religion?
"Oh no!" she laughs. "It's far more superficial than that. It's just Jude Law, the actor!
"I could've got all serious and said, 'Oh, you know, the scales of justice and all that stuff but I just thought, 'You know what? Jude!' I can be very serious but I was being facetious, taking the piss. I take my work very seriously but me less so. I am Australian, after all, and proudly so."
Jennifer Robinson is just 31. But she's already achieved a CV that would be impressive for someone double her vintage: trusted advisor to Assange's legal team and Assange himself, engaged with the British media reform agitator Hacked Off, the Manning monitoring brief in the US, adjunct lecturer in law at Sydney University, member of the International Lawyers for (the disputed Indonesian region of) West Papua, former legal advisor to the New York Times in its investigation that kick-started the Murdoch phone-hacking drama, legal director for the South African-backed philanthropic Bertha Foundation, et al. "I wear a lot of hats," she says.
Oh, and she also bangs out hundreds of emails and tweets a day, crisply cogitating on bogus Pakistani blasphemy and the Tamil ordeal in Sri Lanka, to Leveson, Prince Harry and Nicola Roxon's flip-flops on data retention policy, while briefing journalists and colleagues and lobbying politicians and officials, and often doing it all from check-in at Heathrow, en route to a conference somewhere where she's keynoting. "My smartphone gets a serious hammering," she says.
Any one of these roles would be a fulltime undertaking for most, but Robinson has also found capacity to write a book on the plight of West Papuans — perhaps the issue closest to her heart — while setting up a award to encourage students at Bomaderry High School, her alma mater outside Nowra, to go onto tertiary studies. And she advises and funds independent documentary-makers, a vocation she'd secretly like to pursue if she wasn't a lawyer (she has a dedicated screening room in her London suite).
"If there was a tablet that replicated the benefits of sleep," she says, "I would take it because there are so any interesting things to do in the world, and so many important causes, and I'm so engaged by what I do. I would work all day long and all night long if I could. Unfortunately you have to sleep. We only have about 680,000 hours in our lifetime."
Time to take a breath. She must've been insufferable at school, definitely the teacher's pet, the bookworm sitting clasped hands at the front of the bus as she swotted for exams?
She laughs. "Yes, I did well at school, was captain of this and that, did all the school leadership things. But I partied a lot. I certainly wasn't the worst kid in class but I wasn't a goodie-goodie either.
"I certainly got called to the principal's office on more than one occasion," she says. "I think I would've sat definitely towards the back of the bus."
When The Global Mail caught up with Robinson last Monday for an hour's coffee among the lavender shrubs of the sunny rooftop above her London office, she had just moved house. She claimed she was exhausted and apologised for her appearance. It wasn't apparent that either was an issue.
And so the Jennifer — Jen to her mates — Robinson dynamo powers on.
Next on her bucket list? Learning Spanish. She thinks it will be useful, given where her close friend and client Assange finds himself, confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in nearby Knightsbridge, and considering she's working on Assange's case alongside one of her lifelong legal heroes, the campaigning Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon. Before Garzon, Robinson has been under the tutelage of two other heroes of hers: the Australian silk Geoffrey Robertson, and the former justice of the Australian High Court, Michael Kirby, before him.
Remembers Robertson: "Jen was interested in human rights and media law and so I engaged her as my researcher. She was exceptional in being able to understand the practicality of the case as well as being quite brilliant academically. That is why she is such a good lawyer.
"She is passionate about her clients but sensible enough to keep a certain distance in order to argue their case with power and objectivity," he says.
Robertson introduced Robinson to Assange in mid-2010, just before WikiLeaks published the 'Iraq War Logs' revealing US military abuses in Iraq, and further fuelling Washington's disquiet about him.
Anticipating Washington's rage, and with 'Cablegate' about to publicly break, Assange was in London discussing legal representation with Robertson, Robinson's mentor since the mid-2000s while she was still at Oxford. He recommended the London lawyer Mark Stephens, with whom Robinson now worked.
Assange had seen Robinson interviewed by Australia's ABC about claims of Jakarta-backed torture and abuse in restive West Papua, a region where she had worked and studied eight years earlier and knew well. Meeting Assange in London, she was "impressed by his knowledge of the issue, its history and the politics", of a subject "most people do not know much about".
Two years on, she clearly has great empathy for the enigmatic 41-year-old WikiLeaks founder. "Julian is very engaging and fun to argue with," Robinson says, "and far more self-deprecating than anyone realises, which — as an Australian — I appreciate.
"The constant feedback I get from journalists who meet him is that they are surprised by how warm and engaging he is, which is contrary to the impression created by the mainstream press.
"He is very committed to WikiLeaks work, and that can lead him to be uncompromising — particularly if he sees his principles at stake.
"There have been countless articles about his character and how he is as a person. Interestingly, a lot of the time they are written by people who have never met him. That is not good journalism."
Of the Swedish rape allegations dogging Assange at the centre of the London-Stockholm-Quito diplomatic impasse, Robinson is reluctant, deliberate and on-message. "Everyone would like to see a satisfactory outcome where these allegations are dealt with and where Julian is protected from onward extradition to the United States for prosecution for his work related to WikiLeaks," she says.
She is puzzled that Swedish state investigators won't come to London to take evidence from Assange in the rape investigation. "We have offered his testimony since October 2010. It's provided for under mutual legal assistance treaties, they've done it before in other cases, it's permissible and they've refused to do so. It is unclear to me. One can only speculate as to their reasons.
"I do not think anyone should be confined in this way to an embassy, and the stress of the situation should not be underestimated, but if anyone can do it, Julian can.
"His commitment to his work and continuing that work will get him through."
Pace her Indonesia passion, Jen Robinson has described herself as a rambutan, the fruit found across South-East Asia. A rambutan's skin — hairy, bristly and coarse — offers no hint as to the surprisingly sweet and succulent fruit it conceals.
The description is about confounding cliches.
She's absorbed by human rights and justice, and believes they shouldn't divide right and left, that they are always about higher values and humanity. She is no less serious for liking fashion, cocktail bars and champagne in her fridge, or for eating in smart restaurants when she can, or liking the Cannes film festival. She loves Hugh Grant's work, less so his films than his campaigning for Rupert Murdoch's phone hacking victims. She says she's just at ease working Sundance or a G-20 if need be, as she is yarning with wharfies or villagers in an Indonesian lean-to. She's a big fan of Malcolm Turnbull, but has little regard for Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott. Kylie was on her wall as a netball and touch rugby-playing teen back home in Berry, and she's now on her iPod as a 30-something lawyer in London.
She's the first and only lawyer in her middle-class family. Dad is a racehorse trainer, Mum a teacher, Robinson the eldest of six siblings. "I didn't go to a posh high school," she says. "I went to government schools, I've gotten places because of my own efforts, I'm not part of any boys' club, none of my parents and friends are 'connected'. I'm from a good, solid, country family."
Family is important to her. "The values that my family instilled gave me a sense of wanting to help others, a sense of empathy and that's what drives my career.
"The trajectory of my life has been so unexpected."
While she says her career experiences so far are firmly in the 'not-in-my-wildest-imagination' basket, "what I did hope was that I'd find a way of making human rights and defence of the media, of free speech, my career and I've been very fortunate to be able to do that."
She remembers an Oxford friend had taken a screenshot of the front page of The New York Times on December 16, 2010. It's a photograph of Assange — "the most famous dissident on the planet", as she describes him — holding his release order from a British prison, flanked by Robinson and her mentor Robertson on the steps of London's Royal Courts of Justice. The friend, who'd stayed on at university, said how thrilled he was she didn't take his advice and continue studying; if she had, instead of being on the page one of the world's most famous newspaper, she'd likely still be in the college library swotting with him.
WIKILEAKS may have provided Robinson her 'pinch-myself' moments, but it's Indonesia and its restive far-eastern region of West Papua that really press her buttons.
Robinson learnt Bahasa at high school, visiting Indonesia as a 16-year-old on a school trip that would change her world. It fired a zeal to defend the disadvantaged, and a perspective that Australians don't often appreciate how advantaged they are.
As a genuine student of Asia — she also studied international relations, in Bahasa, a very rare bule (foreigner) at Jogjakarta's storied UGM — she laments the loss of Keating and Rudd, less so for their politics but more for Canberra's Australia-in-Asia initiatives, since rolled back by subsequent governments.
"I imagine how different my life would be if I didn't that opportunity to be exposed to Bahasa, to Indonesia, to Asia."
Fifteen years and several degrees on, she's bemused and disappointed in equal measure that her Bahasa skill is somehow seen as a point of separation for her among Australians. "I'm one of the few lawyers who can speak Indonesian very well, but it shouldn't be shocking that an Australian speaks Indonesian, it should be par for the course. I was fascinated by Indonesia, and I'm still fascinated by it, the most diverse and wonderful country.
"I really love Indonesia," she insists, "and I am constantly frustrated by how it's portrayed in the media post the Bali bombing. But at the same time, I can't countenance what happens in West Papua," the closest part of Indonesia to Australia, and largely off-limits to foreigners who aren't miners.
It's a place she knows well, having studied and worked in Jayapura with the renowned local human rights champion John Rumbiak in 2002, on an exchange from UGM in Jogja. "I think my UGM supervisor rues the day he ever proposed it," she says. (Rumbiak was forced to flee West Papua in 2003 for Australia after a succession of attacks and death threats.)
For Robinson, her time in West Papua filled the missing link about Indonesia that was curiously not addressed by the ANU curriculum. "I thought, How on earth can I have spent three years at ANU, studying every single possible subject about Indonesia and East Timor and human rights and not once come across West Papua and what happened there."
And it's been noticed in Jakarta, too. In London, she recently had a spooky visit — dressed up as a courtesy call — from an Indonesian diplomat inquiring about her advocacy for human rights in West Papua. She saw the warning as a reflection of Indonesian sensitivity about the mineral-rich and militarised region, which has long been pushing to break away from Jakarta. It seems Jakarta was checking her out, and she agrees. "He told me that I wouldn't be welcome back".
But she returned to Indonesia last November for the first time in almost 10 years, doing so without a hitch. "I'd like to think that is a sign of the new Indonesia, that people can speak out about human rights issues and come and go.
"If you want to test Indonesia's democratic development, then you need to have a look at what happens in West Papua. No democratic state would allow what happens there. The great strides and reforms made elsewhere in the archipelago have not happened in West Papua. It doesn't engender support for the Indonesian state, it's against their self-interest.
"Australia ought to be pushing the human rights agenda much further, which does not equate with supporting independence for West Papua. We need to harden up.
"We compromise our own values for the sake of political pragmatism, which is what we do on West Papua all the time. It's unacceptable.
"If we are lobbying for a place on the UN Security Council on the basis of our supposed human rights-based foreign policy, if we can't sort out what's going on at our doorstep, how on earth can we be trusted to be on the international committee that deals with crisis all over the world when we can't deal with the genocide on our doorstep?
"Human rights hypocrisy in the West, it gets my gall," she says.
"When you have countries like Australia and America doing things that, if other states did, they'd really raise concerns about, but it's fine if we do it — that to me is unacceptable.
"You have the US bombing a friendly state, using targeted killings as part of their foreign policy. If Iran was doing that, the world would be up in arms.
"Australia locks up refugees. If another state did that how would we respond? It's double standards. Historically the West has led the human rights debate, quite correctly, but I feel their capacity to do so has been diminished by their hypocrisy. And that is a great concern because it's important the West leads by example."
"One of my great concerns is the state of Australian politics. It does our nation a disservice. Australia is a better country than our politics portrays. There's a loss of values… I'm very proud of being Australian but I'm not proud of our politics."
Robinson probably first came to wider attention in her own right in April this year, for what could well a spooky brush with Washington's invisible tentacles. Checking in at Heathrow for a Virgin flight to Sydney to speak at a conference about, irony of ironies, "Lawyers on the Frontline", she discovered she was on an 'inhibited' travel list. It meant she, an Australian passport-holder, couldn't board a flight for her own country, forbidden from entering Australia without specific clearance from Canberra's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The incident came "well and truly" after she was known to be working with Assange and WikiLeaks. She remembers the Virgin security officer telling her "You must have done something controversial to end up on this list", as they leafed through her passport and banged impenetrable buttons to print her boarding pass.
The impression was given it was an Australian issue, and it floored her. "My thought bubble was 'WTF, exclamation mark, exclamation mark'." She contacted Assange. Despite his WikiLeaks notoriety, Assange had never been stopped at immigration or check-in while he was at liberty to travel. She laughs recalling his remark. "He told me 'Hmm, 'inhibited'? That doesn't sound like you, Jen.'"
Since she's been advising WikiLeaks and Assange, she's travelled to the US, to the Bradley Manning proceedings, and had no issues getting in or out. Holidaying at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this year, she even collared US Attorney General Eric Holder, the man who launched Washington's criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and Assange.
She has not been visited by mysterious wellwishers from Grosvenor Square, where Washington's embassy is in London, as she was with the Indonesians.
"If it were related to my work, it's unacceptable, and the world thinks it's unacceptable because of the response to it," she says, citing the storm that briefly raged across the media. It forced a response from Roxon, who assured Robinson she was on no Australian government 'watch list', even claiming Canberra has no such list.
"I'm completely open to the fact that it was a mistake," she says, "but it's something I still haven't had a proper answer to."
BEYOND WikiLeaks and matters Papuan, Jennifer Robinson is concerned about the wider media's self-absorption with Britain's Leveson inquiry into press standards, another pet subject.
She remembers a conversation she had with Assange about the phone-hacking drama, that Leveson could result in greater press regulation and government control over information.
"A self-regulated press is what we want to maintain and I'm concerned that Leveson may result in changes that move is away from that," she says.
"Yes, phone-hacking was a terrible thing to have happened, yes it was illegal, yes there were lots of people involved in it, thousands had their phones hacked and not just celebrities and yes we should be doing something about that," she says, pausing before the 'but' qualifier.
"But phone-hacking has been the number-one tweeted story by journalists in the last year. But when the UK government is proposing wholesale surveillance of the entire population — of every single person — where is the media coverage?
"The average person on the street… their emails are being captured. That's what we should be writing about.
"Surveillance affects everyone. Not just the elite, celebs or those few phone-hacking victims who were not famous but in the news for other unfortunate reasons. And it's not just ordinary citizens, but it's also journalists. How can you possibly protect your sources with the data retention plans and the government's ability to data mine it?
"Open your eyes to the longer-term game," she pleads. "In 10 years' time when you've got statutory regulation around your content, let's have another talk about what you think you should've been reporting on right now."
So what does the future hold for Jen Robinson? She says, "I just hope I'm doing good human rights work, and I hope in some way making a difference."
Mentor Robertson believes "she is probably torn between a tempting career as head of a big NGO and carving out a career as a barrister.
"She is still very young. She could certainly become a great advocate or an excellent judge or could end up running an organisation like Amnesty.
"It will be fascinating to watch."
* Ms Robinson would like to note that, to date, she has not argued a case at the Old Bailey. We say, watch this space.