Julian Assange Challenges UK Press Coverage of Extradition Struggle

By: Kevin Gosztola Thursday April 5, 2012

Numerous complaints about United Kingdom press coverage of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange’s struggle against being extradited to Sweden have been made by Assange. Those complaints were submitted to the Leveson Inquiry, empaneled to examine culture, practices and ethics of the press in the aftermath of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. The complaints reveal a dogged effort by Assange to challenge an inaccuracy often reported as fact: that he was charged with rape and that is why he is facing extradition.

A good example is a complaint he made in regards to the coverage of his case by People (UK) in February 2011. He responded to a headline that read, “Assange must face Sweden sex trial.”

The headline implies my case is ready to go to trial and the article begins: “WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face sex offense charges, a judge has ruled,” both of which are false. I have not been charged with any offense and the preliminary investigation has not been completed. No decision to take the matter to trial is possible under Swedish law until it has been (see Prosecution link). These statements therefore represent a significant and misleading inaccuracy. The facts are not hard to establish – a matter of basic fact-checking – and a correction should be printed with due prominence.

He then lists the “costs of the libel” asserting: it harms his and WikiLeaks’ reputation globally; it contributes a “hostile media climate in the UK” while extradition is still being heard by the courts; it contributes to a “hostile media climate in Sweden,” where he may soon be extradited and put on trial; it contributes to a “hostile media climate in the United States” where a federal Grand Jury has been empaneled; it undermines potential political support in Australia and discourages the Australian government from intervening to stop his extradition; and it makes it difficult to raise money for WikiLeaks and his personal legal defense fund at a time when FBI, Pentagon, CIA and US State Department Task Forces “imperil” him and his organization.

In total, there are 75 press complaints that were submitted to the British Press Complaints Commission (PCC) [they are itemized here].

A “cover letter” submitted to the Leveson Inquiry shows how Assange thought providing this material would help the Inquiry in its efforts:

…As a case study, it can bring focus to many of the key issues the Leveson Inquiry wishes to explore: for example, whether the Editors’ Code is insufficiently rigorous to be meaningful, and the disparity between how newsrooms say they implement it and their subsequent attitudes towards it when challenged about breaches of its principles; does the PCC have enough independence within the current model of self-regulation; and what explains its inability to meet its Charter commitments (the majority of these complaints took roughly twice the advertised ‘average of 35 working days’), among other things…

…In its own evidence to the Leveson Inquiry the Press Complaints Commission has argued that, with no legislative powers and under its current structure, it is geared to perform only one function of press regulation effectively – that of providing a conduit for people either to prevent or to remedy the worst excesses of the UK press around high-profile news stories involving themselves. Anecdotal evidence already before the Inquiry from other victims of press misbehavior and poor standards suggests the PCC falls well short of achieving this. The case study provided here gives the documentary detail needed to enable a contemporaneous analysis of how and why the PCC fails to provide individuals vulnerable to bad journalistic practices – whether through deliberate smear campaign, inadequate fact-checking or regurgitated press agency material- with effective protection or redress.

If the content of Assange’s complaints are not evidence of efforts to libel Assange, they are at minimum a cross-section of UK media coverage that allows one to truly see how UK media have covered his legal struggles over extradition.

The PCC is already slated to close and be replaced by another body after the Inquiry completes. In the meantime, a transitional body is to operate and, as the Guardian reported, be run by: Michael McManus, “a former Conservative special adviser, who is director of transition; Jonathan Collett, “the director of communications, who has previously acted as press adviser to former Conservative leader Michael Howard”; and Charlotte Dewar, “the head of complaints who previously worked at the Guardian.” So, the value of Assange’s complaints is that they could help influence Inquiry recommendations for a new media watchdog body.

To Americans, it is probably pretty odd to think about having a government body that keeps watch over media and tries to force media or news organizations to uphold ethics or standards. The value of such a body would be hard to comprehend for most citizens and probably much of the political class. If there wasn’t any interest in having government subsidize newspapers when the newspaper industry was collapsing a few years ago because people feared the government might try to control media, there definitely is little chance of a government watchdog body ever being setup in the United States.

Assange is still waiting to hear from the UK Supreme Court on whether he can appeal his extradition to Sweden. He has been waiting since February for a Court decision. And the delay has complicated efforts to get the Australian government to release secret diplomatic cables relating to Julian Assange.

For nearly 500 days, Assange has been under house arrest without charge. WikiLeaks has been financially blockaded by Visa, Mastercard and PayPal for nearly 500 days as well. And Pfc. Bradley Manning, the individual accused of releasing the information to WikiLeaks, which fueled the vilification and political targeting of Assange and WikiLeaks? He has been in pre-trial confinement awaiting a trial for nearly 700 days.

Two years ago Assange boarded an airplane from Iceland to the United States for the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists and a “Good Samaritan” and wounded two children. The video exposed a war crime, but to this day no person involved has been held accountable. On the other hand, the journalist and alleged whistleblower involved continue to face regular attacks in the media (mostly the US) and efforts to put them in jail for revealing the truth about US superpower.



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