Bianca Jagger last week launched a fierce attack on the Guardian for carrying my story about the evidence collected by Swedish police who have been investigating the claims of sexual assault by the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.
At the heart of her attack is a repeated claim that we failed to publish exculpatory evidence contained in the police file. Those who have read her piece will have noticed that she does not cite one single example of this missing information. There are two reasons for this. First, she does not know what is in that police file, because she has not read it. Second, if she had, she would know that her claim is simply not true.
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. They also sent Assange’s lawyer a list of all the key points and delayed publication for days so that he had a chance to respond. Our story contains literally hundreds of words whose sole purpose is to reflect Assange’s position.
Jagger also insists that she has a right to know who leaked the file to the Guardian and says that the leak was part of “an obvious effort to conduct a smear campaign” against Assange. Setting aside for a moment the head-splitting hypocrisy that a supporter of Wikileaks wants to hunt down the source of a leak, there are two similar problems with this claim. First, Jagger has no idea who leaked that file (and made no attempt to find out). Second, if she did know, she would discover that the source had no intention of smearing Assange in any way.
I am not going to serve up that source’s identity to satisfy Jagger’s temper. A police file like that gets widely distributed. It happened to make its way quite legitimately into the hands of somebody I have come across in the past. This person has absolutely no connection with the Swedish prosecutor or the Swedish police or any other individual or organisation with any kind of antipathy to Assange. The source passed it on, and I got it translated.
Assange’s UK lawyer tried very hard to persuade us to suppress the file. He argued that since Assange had been a source for our stories, we should ‘protect’ him. I reckon that that is an invitation to journalistic corruption, to hide information in order to curry favour with a source. We were right to publish.
Jagger calls this ‘trial by media’. I call it an attempt to inject some evidence into a global debate which has been fuelled by speculation and misinformation. On August 21, when this story first broke, Assange used Twitter to spread the idea that the two women who had gone to the police were engaged in ‘dirty tricks’. His lawyer subsequently claimed that a ‘honeytrap’ had been sprung. Assange’s celebrity supporters have announced to the mass media that the allegations are ‘without foundation’, that ‘there is no prima facie evidence’. These statements have gone around the world. Millions of well-meaning people have been persuaded to believe them. The two women, who have been identified on the Internet, have had their reputations ruined by the claim that they cruelly colluded to destroy an innocent man. The Swedish police and prosecutors have been held up to ridicule as corrupt and/or incompetent partners in the plot.
Our story showed: first, that the Swedish police have found no evidence of any such dirty tricks (which would not surprise the conspiracy theorists); second, that in his interview with Swedish police on August 30, Assange himself never began to suggest that the allegations were any kind of dirty trick; third, that Assange’s supporters in Stockholm had tried to find evidence and come up empty, concluding, as the Swedish Wikileaks co-ordinator put it to us: “This is a normal police investigation. Let the police find out what actually happened. Of course, the enemies of Wikileaks may try to use this, but it begins with the two women and Julian. It is not the CIA sending a woman in a short skirt.”
And by publishing our story, we achieved something: Julian Assange was forced to admit, in interviews with the London Times and with the BBC, that there is no evidence of a honeytrap. That matters very much. The news media don’t want to report that – there’s a much better story in the dirty tricks. Some of the most active tweeters and the bloggers have not picked up on it – they are much too happy with their conspiracy theories. The celebrity disciples like Bianca Jagger don’t mention it. They simply move on to insist that there must be another conspiracy at work in the legal process. But the honeytrap story is dead: our story killed it. Whether or not Assange is guilty of a crime is a separate matter: the facts are not yet finally established, the law is not yet finally interpreted. At some point in this coming year, a court will decide that.
There is one final point lurking in the background. Assange has been suggesting – for example, in his interview with David Frost on al-Jazeera – that all this is something to do with the fact that he and I fell out. It is true that at the beginning of August, I cut off contact with him in order to protest at several things he had done – the first time I have cut off a source in 34 years as a reporter. This was nothing to do with the sex allegations in Sweden.
His supporters tried to brief newspapers that it was an act of vengeance on my part to go out and find this police file. That fell at the first fence, because the file came to me: I never spent a single second looking for it. As an alternative decoy, Assange suggested in his interview with David Frost, that some malign force, possibly an intelligence agency, chose me as an outlet for the file, knowing that I could be relied on to write a negative story. That also falls at the first fence. The reality is that I didn’t write the story which the Guardian published. The copy which I filed was completely re-written in the Guardian office, a commonplace event in a newsroom.
Finally, I should mention what Jagger does not – that I was the journalist who took it on himself back in June to track down Julian Assange and to persuade him not to post his latest collection of secrets on the Wikileaks website but to hand them over to the Guardian and other news organisations. The publication of the Afghan and Iraqi war logs and then the diplomatic cables all flowed from that initiative. I did that because I think journalists should tell the truth about important things without being frightened, for example, by the government of the most powerful state on the planet.
In exactly the same way, I think it was right to publish our story about the Swedish police file without being frightened by Julian Assange’s lawyer or indeed by the clear prospect of being attacked online by people like Bianca Jagger. There are millions of them out there. They have come to a conclusion about Assange and the sex claims in Sweden and they are not interested in evidence. They tweet and blog in the most eye-wateringly aggressive tone and often, like Bianca Jagger, they do so without even the slightest connection to the truth.
It has been a depressing experience to see some of those who were most furious at the global propaganda run by Bush and Rumsfeld now leading the cheers for a new campaign for misinformation, happy to be manipulated, content to recycle falsehood and distortion no matter what damage they may do.