On November 27, 2018 the Guardian published a “bombshell”, swiftly taken up by other of the world’s media. Authors Luke Harding and Dan Collyns alleged that President Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, convicted three months earlier on eight counts of malfeasance, had prior to the 2016 US election held secret meetings with Julian Assange at the Ecuador Embassy in London ..
.. where Julian1 spent seven years avoiding a return to Sweden, ostensibly for police questioning on rape claims. (He was never charged, though you’d have struggled at the time to glean this basic detail from media coverage.) Their specifics – but not the attendant Goebbelsian2 smears which did so much to deprive him of the support of a credulous intelligentsia – were never fully understood and are now fully forgotten.
As is the fact the original Swedish Chief Prosecutor declared that there was no case to answer and no prosecutable evidence.
As is the fact – significant given revelations by Iceland’s Interior Minister, Ögmundur Jónasson, of CIA pressure to frame Assange – the case was later picked up by a more hawkish prosecutor, Marianne Ny. (In not the only mismatch of Swedish and British legal terms – another being the meaning of ‘rape’ – the overtly partisan office of a Swedish Chief Prosecutor was widely but wrongly taken in the UK to be equivalent to that of a judge.)
As is the fact, derided at the time by Guardian writers of superficially diverse stripe, of Assange again and again seeking assurances from Stockholm that he would not be extradited on to the USA to face charges of a wholly different nature.
I digress. Earlier in 2018 Harding and Guardian had repeatedly alleged that unnamed “Russian officials” also visited Assange at the embassy. Nine times. Taken together, these claims chimed with a wider Democrat narrative – that Trump conspired with Assange and Putin to leak emails discrediting his 2016 rival and her DNC backers, thereby favouring the man HRC and DNC were strenuously claiming to be Moscow’s preferred presidential candidate.3
But media enthusiasm for the Harding-Collyns ‘bombshell’ quickly waned as NYT, WashPo, HuffPo etc raced to distance themselves. This from Salon, December 7 2018 – The Manafort-Assange meeting that wasn’t: A case study in journalistic malpractice:
One CNN analyst (11/27/18) analyst excitedly commented that the news was “hugely significant” and “could be one of the two missing links to show real interference and knowledge of Russian involvement” in the election.
However, there were serious problems with the report. Firstly, the entire story was based upon anonymous intelligence sources, sources that could not tell the newspaper exactly when the meetings took place.
Furthermore, the Ecuadorian embassy is one of the most surveilled buildings in the most surveilled city in the world, and was under 24-hour police guard and monitoring, costing the UK government over £11 million between 2012 and 2015. The embassy also had very tight internal security, with all visitors thoroughly vetted, required to sign in and leave all their electronic devices with security. Is it really possible any figure, let alone Donald Trump’s campaign manager, could walk in for a series of secret meetings without leaving record with Ecuador, or being seen by the media or police?
… The Guardian immediately started to walk back its claims, editing the article a number of times, changing its headline from “Manafort Held Secret Talks With Assange in Ecuadorian Embassy” to “Manafort Held Secret Talks With Assange in Ecuadorian Embassy, Sources Say.” It inserted qualifiers, denials and words like “hoax” into the text, quietly changing much of the tense of the report to the conditional. Thus, the passage “It is unclear why Manafort wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last meeting is likely to come under scrutiny” was changed to (emphasis added) “It is unclear why Manafort would have wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last apparent meeting is likely to come under scrutiny.” Thus a piece that started as a factual news report was transformed into an allegation — after it went viral and was picked up across international media.
For its part, Le Monde diplomatique – owned by Le Monde but said to enjoy full editorial freedom – a month later ran with the unambiguous header, The Guardian’s Fake Scoop:
In November 2018, the US Department of Justice accidentally revealed that it had filed sealed charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012. Assange has said for some years that he is in danger of being extradited to the US, where he fears being given a life term for espionage, or worse. In a scoop on 27 November, the Guardian revealed that Paul Manafort, chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had met Assange in London three times: in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
The news was all the more sensational as in 2013 Trump had not yet declared his candidacy for US president. CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times licked their chops. They suspected Assange of having collaborated with the Russian authorities in disseminating information embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, and saw his interviews with a close ally of Trump as confirming a long-term collusion between the US president and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in which Assange had acted as liaison agent.
But had Manafort’s three meetings with Assange really taken place? At first glance, there could be no doubt: the Guardian is respected around the world, and leads in the denunciation of fake news. And the article presented the story as an unqualified fact. So the proof was there: the meetings had definitely happened.
Then doubt set in. People remembered that one of the article’s authors, Luke Harding, had a personal grievance against Assange. And it was revealed that the work of one of the two other journalists responsible for the scoop had immediately been deleted from the Guardian’s online edition. This was Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian and opponent of former president Rafael Correa, who had granted Assange asylum. The article’s original headline ‘Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy’ was modified a few hours later with the addition of ‘sources say’, and the two men’s meeting became an ‘apparent meeting’.
Around the same time – December 2018 – the Canary was weighing in. Its piece – Guilty by innuendo: the Guardian campaign against Julian Assange that breaks all the rules – merits reading in full. Here I’ll pick out this:
Simply referring to ‘unnamed sources’ … is just not good enough in the age of fake news. [We] followed up the Guardian story on Manafort by suggesting likely sources: namely private intelligence contractors organised by Ecuadorian intelligence (Senain) … The Guardian, meanwhile, has largely failed to defend its claims.
On the matter of sources, it’s important that journalists are careful with whom they associate. For example, Guardian commentator and BuzzFeed writer James Ball spoke at an event promoted by the controversial Integrity Initiative,4 which claims to specialise in ‘counter-disinformation‘. So did Guardian/Observer journalist Nick Cohen. And at least one other Guardian journalist5 spoke at that event too. Other mainstream media journalists, meanwhile, are also listed in Integrity’s ‘UK cluster’ activists document (seen by The Canary).
The question that we now need to ask is: if the Guardian story about the Manafort visits was untrue, then how many more claims against Assange in the articles quoted above were also untrue? If the paper had given hard evidence in the first place, we wouldn’t need to ask that question. But it didn’t. So we do.
The Canary contacted the Guardian for comment. But it hadn’t responded by the time of publication.
Nor has it yet. As the world’s media – not normally reticent when it comes to vilifying Assange – rowed back from their initial enthusiasm, Harding and editor-in-chief Katherine Viner, both of them prolific tweeters, maintained a stony silence for weeks. Since then there has been neither retraction nor substantiation of the story from Guardian Media Group.
Now to the main thrust of this post. I’ve taken my time but – more often accused of being too cryptic than too prolix – deemed that necessary. How so? To make the case that Luke Harding has not shown himself worthy of our trust.
Again you’d barely know this from mainstream media coverage in Britain, but in the Old Bailey a man is fighting to avoid one hundred and seventy five years of incarceration in a US hell hole for revealing truths about “our” wars on the middle east. The conducting of this kangaroo court, which is what those same media would be calling it if held in China or Russia, is a mockery – yes, this is a cliché but just this once do set that fact aside and let the words sink in – of justice.
A mockery of justice.
Try Craig Murray, some of whose despatches from the courtroom I’ve replicated. His report on Day 13 features Nicky Hager, veteran New Zealand investigative journalist, under hostile cross examination by James Lewis QC, counsel for the US Government. Hager’s co-authored book “Hit and Run” detailed a New Zealand SAS raid in Afghanistan, “Operation Burnham”, whose sole victims were civilians, one of them a child. He was subjected to calumny, insult and police raids on his home, but in July an official government report found that all the major facts of his book were correct, and the New Zealand military had run dangerously out of control.
Here is a small but significant exchange from Day 13, as reported by Murray:
Lewis On 2 September 2011 the Guardian published an editorial article abhorring Wikileaks’ publishing of unredacted cables and stating that hundreds of lives had been put in danger. Do you agree with those statements?
Hager My information is that Wikileaks did not release the cables until others had published.
Lewis We say your understanding is wrong. On 25 August Wikileaks published 134,000 cables including some marked “strictly protect”. What is your opinion on that?
Hager I am not going to comment on a disputed fact. I do not personally know.
Lewis The book “Wikileaks: the Inside Story” by David Leigh and Luke Harding of the Guardian newspaper states that Assange “wished to release the whole lot sooner”. It also states that at a dinner at El Moro restaurant, Assange stated that if informants were killed, they had it coming to them. Would you care to comment?
Hager I know that there was great animosity between David Leigh and Julian Assange by the point that book was written. I would not regard that as a reliable source. I do not want to dignify that book by answering it.
Lewis Are you trying to assist the court or assist Assange? In a talk recorded at the Frontline Club, Assange stated that Wikileaks only had a duty to protect informants from “unjust” retribution, and that those who gave information to US forces for money or engaged in “truly traitorous” behaviour deserved their fate. Do you support that statement?
Relevance? Other than the one step removed resurfacing of Luke Harding? Two days earlier, Craig Murray had begun his Day 11 post with this:
Yet another shocking example of abuse of court procedure unfolded on Wednesday. James Lewis QC for the prosecution had been permitted gratuitously to read to two previous witnesses with zero connection to this claim, an extract from a book by Luke Harding and David Leigh in which Harding claims that at a dinner at El Moro Restaurant Julian Assange had stated he did not care if US informants were killed, because they were traitors who deserved what was coming to them.
This morning giving evidence was John Goetz, now Chief Investigations Editor of NDR (German public TV), then of Der Spiegel. Goetz was one of the four people at that dinner. He was ready and willing to testify that Julian said no such thing and Luke Harding is (not unusually) lying. Goetz was not permitted by Judge Baraitser to testify on this point, even though two witnesses who were not present had previously been asked to testify on it.
Baraitser’s legal rationale was this. It was not in his written evidence statement (submitted before Lewis had raised the question with other witnesses) so Goetz was only permitted to contradict Lewis’s deliberate introduction of a lie if Lewis asked him. Lewis refused to ask the one witness who was actually present what had happened, because Lewis knew the lie he is propagating would be exposed.
This is my report of Lewis putting the alleged conversation to Clive Stafford Smith, who knew nothing about it:
Lewis then took Stafford Smith to a passage in the book “Wikileaks; Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”, in which Luke Harding stated that he and David Leigh were most concerned to protect the names of informants, but Julian Assange had stated that Afghan informants were traitors who merited retribution. “They were informants, so if they got killed they had it coming.” Lewis tried several times to draw Stafford Smith into this, but Stafford Smith repeatedly said he understood these alleged facts were under dispute and he had no personal knowledge.
This is my report of James Lewis putting the same quote to Prof Mark Feldstein, who had absolutely no connection to the event:
Lewis then read out again the same quote from the Leigh/Harding book he had put to Stafford Smith, stating that Julian Assange had said the Afghan informants would deserve their fate.
James Lewis QC knew that these witnesses had absolutely no connection to this conversation, and he put it to them purely to get the lie into the court record and into public discourse. James Lewis QC also knows that Goetz was present on the occasion described. The Harding book specifies the exact date and location of the dinner and that it included two German journalists, and Goetz was one of them.
It is plainly contrary to natural justice that a participant in an event introduced into the proceedings should not be allowed to tell the truth about it when those with no connection are, tendentiously, invited to. Whatever the rules of evidence may say, Baraitser and Lewis have here contrived between them a blatant abuse of process. It is a further example of the egregious injustices of this process.6
I trust you’ve given this your full attention. Either way, it’s as much as I have to say right now on so grotesque a charade – other than that we are all Julian Assange and all being cheated, most of us in our sleep, by Murray’s “egregious injustices”.
Of which this is but the tiniest taster.
* * *
- Should my frequent preference of ‘Julian’ over ‘Assange’ raise eyebrows, I defend it on the ground he has been so resoundingly vilified as to dehumanise him. Indulge if you will, my tiny efforts at countering that dehumanisation.
- I use the term, Goebbelsian, advisedly. Try this from the Guardian, June 20, 2018. Again co-authored by Luke Harding, it houses this gem: “US intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” last year, in an unclassified assessment, that the Kremlin shared hacked emails with WikiLeaks that undermined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as part of its effort to sway the 2016 election in favour of Donald Trump.” Such claims are common in the demonising of those to whom Washington (hence London) means harm. They are, I fear, swallowed wholesale by readers unable to differentiate between “we have evidence” and, well, evidence …
- Worthy of comment here is the fact, noted in a recent post, that the Democrats’ shoot-the-messenger approach, aided by the Democrat bias of America’s best known papers, did not attempt denial of the cynicism and corruption the emails revealed. Just as the current administration does not attempt denial of what Wikileaks revealed about America’s war crimes and those of its junior partners. (It was the Democrats who commissioned the infamous dossier by ex British spy, Christopher Steele. Not that they alone are culpable – see this on the FBI’s sordid role in the affair.)
- The Canary’s description of Integrity Initiative as “controversial” is to praise with faint damnation. While its psy-ops – first coming to wider public attention in respect of the coordinated deep state campaign to discredit Corbyn – are relatively small scale, its “hair raising transgressions of the norms of civil society” are in all likelihood the tip of a massive iceberg.
- The “at least one other Guardian journalist” referred to by The Canary as attending that Integrity Initiative event is probably David Aaronovitch, whose name appears in the minutes.
- “Baraitser and Lewis have contrived between them a blatant abuse of process .. a further example of the egregious injustices of this process.” These egregious injustices abound at the level of court proceedings, and Murray’s non legal but keen eye has performed a vital service from the gallery at Belmarsh and Old Bailey. But they neither begin nor end with in-court abuse. The boss of nonentity Vanessa Baraitser is Judge Emma Arbuthnot. Her husband is Lord James Arbuthnot, he of multiple and highly lucrative links with British military intelligence and the illegal wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Arbuthnot has refused to recuse herself, and remains Baraitser’s supervisor. Nor does egregious injustice stop there. In ever widening ripples it can be seen in Julian’s embassy eviction and arrest. In media character assassinations that saw the Guardian distinguishing itself through a mix of puerile but vicious ad hominems with specious arguments for clever fools – as though the rape “charges” could be separated in the real world from so massively politicised a context as US fury over Wikileaks. And not to forget the most egregious injustices of all: perpetrated in pursuit of imperialism’s constant violence on the global south, as revealed by voices who risked so much to bring us truth. I speak of Chelsea Manning, Ed Snowden and Julian Assange.