The Julian Assange 'Trial by Newspaper' -- A Response to Nick Davies

The press has a responsibility to present a fair account of events relating to Julian Assange, particularly when due process is at stake. Prejudiced reporting can have costly and tragic consequences.
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In 'Trial by Newspaper,' which I wrote in response to Nick Davies' article, '10 Days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange' (Guardian, 17 December, 2010) I objected to the Guardian's decision to publish selective passages from the Swedish police report, whilst omitting exculpatory evidence contained in the document. I am concerned that Julian Assange was subjected to a 'trial by newspaper,' in Davies' article, jeopardizing his chance for a fair and impartial trial in a court of justice, in violation of due process. The Guardian refused to publish my piece, without heavy editing, so I chose to publish it in the Huffington Post.

In Davies' response, 'Lets Clear the Air of Misinformation,' he defended the Guardian's decision to publish his biased article, arguing that they were justified in publishing the selected excerpts of the leaked police report, in the same way WikiLeaks was justified in publishing the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, and the leaked diplomatic cables. He calls it a 'head-splitting hypocrisy that a supporter of WikiLeaks wants to hunt down the source of a leak.'

It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that drawing a parallel between WikiLeaks' revelations, and Davies' scoop doesn't hold. Exposing the crimes of the most powerful state in the world and its allies around the globe, as WikiLeaks did, is not the same as revealing allegations about the very individual who made those revelations, particularly at a time when the international political establishment is hunting him down, with Sarah Palin demanding he be pursued with the same urgency as al Qaeda and US Vice President Joe Biden likening him to a 'high tech terrorist.'

As all good investigative journalists know -- from George Orwell to Paul Foot and John Pilger -- there is a profound difference between exposing the deeds of powerful governments, corporations and the rich and throwing mud at those who released the information. One is investigative journalism; the other is muck-raking aimed at opponents of the powerful.

The publishing of selective passages of the Swedish police file is not comparable to WikiLeaks' exposures, and to insist that they are one and the same is duplicitous.

Assange cannot defend himself at this point; all he can do is refute these allegations in the broadest terms. Davies knows that Assange's lawyers will insist that he does not publicly engage in a rebuttal of the details in these allegations himself, when he is facing extradition and possible criminal charges. He is thoroughly disadvantaged by what Davies has done.

As an experienced journalist, Davies should know that justice can easily be jeopardized by unfair and prejudiced reporting. By his own admission, he had a fall out with Assange. I can't help but wonder if his article was motivated by revenge? Whatever his reasons, Davies sacrificed his journalistic ethics for a scoop, despite the cost to justice.

Davies argues 'The Guardian went out of their way to include exculpatory material, not just from the police file but also from previous comments made by Assange and his lawyers.' He asserts that because I have not seen the police file, I cannot accuse the Guardian of failing to publish the exculpatory evidence contained in it.

He arrogantly assumes that he knows what I have and have not seen. Let's assume he is right for the sake of the debate. That still does not excuse the Guardian from failing to publish the exonerating evidence. Many HuffPost readers have demanded that the Guardian make the entire file available to the public, to let people draw their own conclusions.

I would like to bring to your attention the vast difference between Nick Davies' modus operandi, and that of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. In an interview with ForaTV on 18 April 2010, in Berkeley California Assange explained the type of journalism at the heart of WikiLeaks:

Unlike other organisations we always release the full source of material at the same time... the articles we do are based upon the full source of material so everything we do is like science, it is checkable, independently checkable, because the information which has informed our conclusions is there. Just like scientific papers, which is based on experimental data, must make the experimental data available to other scientists and to the public, if they want their papers to be published. It is our philosophy that raw source material must be made available so that conclusions can be checkable. And that is what we did with Der Spiegel.

But we are also an activist organisation, the method is transparency, the goal is justice; part of the method is journalism. It is our end goal to achieve justice.'

Davies, in contrast, chose to publish selective passages from the Swedish police report, with no effort at transparency.

I will now address some of Davies' other points:

Firstly, he claims the leak of the police file was not part of an attempt to smear Assange. If that is the case, why does he not reveal who gave him the file?

Davies claims the Guardian story 'forced' Assange to admit there is no evidence of a honey trap. As WL Central has pointed out, Assange has never claimed that he had been the victim of a 'honey trap.' He clearly stated during John Humphry's interview on the Today Show (21 December, 2010): 'I have never said that this is a honey trap.' The reference to a honey trap came from a single out-of-context quote by Assange's defense lawyer.

Davies argues I do not cite any of the exculpatory evidence. As I mentioned in my article, evidence of Tweets, SMS messages and statements to friends, from the two complainants are widely available in the public domain. I do not know what pressures the two complainants are under, and as I said in my previous article, I refuse to be drawn into passing judgment on the case, but I would like to reiterate: denying justice for men will not achieve justice for women.

I did however quote from Chief Prosecutor Eva Finne, 'The decision which up to this point has been established is that Assange is not suspected of rape and he is therefore no longer wanted for arrest' -- a vital piece of exonerating evidence which Davies chooses to ignore.

It is widely known that the complainants first approached the police because they wanted assistance in securing an STD test. Initially, there was no mention of pressing charges of rape, coercion or molestation.

How did this escalate from a request for a test to an investigation of a criminal nature? Who made this decision? After considering the evidence, Eva Finne, a female Chief Prosecutor chose to dismiss the charges. The case was then taken up by a politician who was facing reelection and whose motive may be questionable. The matter was taken to a prosecutor in a different city where none of the events had taken place. Why was this done? Was any pressure brought to bear? These are the questions a truly committed investigative journalist should be asking.

Instead, to crown his argument, Davies announces, 'The reality is that I didn't write the story which the Guardian published.' Once again, his claim serves only to equivocate. If it wasn't his story why is he defending it? Why did it go out under his by-line?

I would like to remind readers that this is the same Nick Davies who, on 20 October 2009 wrote the article, 'Prostitution and trafficking -- the anatomy of moral panic' in which he argues that the problem of sex trafficking in the UK has been exaggerated. As Rahila Gupta showed in her response (Sex Trafficking is no illusion, The Guardian, 20 October 2009) Davies article is a 'hugely selective piece of reporting of the available research,' and fails to take into account critical evidence, including Operation Paladin, a three-month investigation into unaccompanied children entering the country through Heathrow, and the Home Affairs Committee report published in May 2009, which gave an estimate of 5,000 trafficked women and children in the UK. If you are looking for an advocate of women's rights Davies' track record leaves a lot to be desired.

Evidently, Davies' biased article about Assange, is not the first time that he has hindered the course of justice, in his pursuit of a scoop.

I am concerned that the 'trial by newspaper' to which Julian Assange has been subjected, could influence the outcome of his extradition hearing on Tuesday, 11 January. The press has a responsibility to present a fair account of events, particularly when due process is at stake. Prejudiced reporting can have costly and tragic consequences. As Attorney General, Dominic Grieve recently warned with regards to a murder investigation in the UK:

We need to avoid a situation where trials cannot take place or are prejudiced as a result of irrelevant or improper material being published, whether in print form or on the internet, in such a way that a fair trial becomes impossible


As I stated previously, it is my hope that justice will be served in the British judicial system. In the meantime, I hope readers will have the insight to suspend judgment until all evidence is available. Julian Assange is innocent until proven guilty.

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