All about press freedom
The case of Julian Assange represents the most dangerous and concerted attack on journalism and freedom of the press in over a century, says Tony Greenstein
The case of Julian Assange has nothing to do with him personally or his seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy and, before that, the false accusation of rape. It is not about the man himself, it is about press freedom.
You would have to go back to the case of John Wilkes in 1762 for a similar case. His attack on George III’s ministers led to the issue of a ‘general warrant’, which was deemed illegal by the chief justice. But, in the case of Assange, far from defending press freedom, the judiciary has led the attack on it.
Other cases involving attacks on press freedom include Mary Whitehouse v Dennis Lemon in 1977. Gay Times had reprinted James Kirkup’s poem, ‘The love that dares to speak its name’, in which a Roman centurion had sex with the crucified Christ. Lemon received a nine-month suspended sentence from another judicial dinosaur, Alan King-Hamilton, who told the court that homosexuality had caused the fall of the Roman empire. The offence was ‘blasphemous libel’, which was abolished in 2008.
The action taken in the ‘ABC trial’, held in 1978, was authorised by the then Labour government’s illiberal home secretary, Merlyn Rees, and attorney general Sam Silkin. ‘ABC’ was short for the names of the three defendants: Audrey, Berry and Campbell. It involved the unprecedented use of section 1 of the Official Secrets Act against non-spies for having disclosed the existence of GCHQ, the eavesdropping intelligence and security organisation. The government case was quickly discredited, since the information was already in the public domain (also revealed in this case was the use of the police vetting of juries). Justice Mars Jones described the prosecution as “oppressive” and threw out the section 1 charges.
There was the jailing of two journalists for three and six months respectively for refusing to divulge their sources to the Vassall Tribunal set up in1963 after the revelation that John Vassall, a civil servant working in the admiralty, had been a Soviet spy.
In the case of Goodwin v United Kingdom in March 1996 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that, under article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, a court could not force a journalist to divulge his sources. The Engineer magazine had intended to publish confidential financial information about Tetra Ltd. Naturally the high court, court of appeal and House of Lords all took the side of property interests and ordered William Goodwin to divulge his sources of information. When he refused he was fined £5,000 for contempt of court, but the European courts ruled otherwise.
The most recent case involving press freedom was the jailing of Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was sacked by Jack Straw, the New Labour foreign secretary and Blair toady. Murray’s crime was to have revealed the extensive use of torture (boiling people alive) by the then ruler of the country, Islam Karimov.
In 2020 Murray wrote that the Scottish National Party leadership, the Crown Office and the police had conspired to convict former SNP leader Alex Salmond on charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape. Salmond was acquitted on all charges, but the British establishment got its revenge when senior Scottish judge and Nicola Sturgeon loyalist, Lady Dorrian QC, issued an order forbidding the publication of the names of the women who had given false witness testimony against Salmond.
In March 2021 Dorrian found Murray to be in contempt of court after he published information online that in her view could potentially lead to identifying some of the complainants (what was called ‘jigsaw identification’) and sentenced him to eight months imprisonment. What made this case particularly outrageous was that Dorrian had ruled that if the case had involved the mainstream press she would have imposed a non-custodial sentence.
But perhaps the most significant case is that taken against The Sunday Times in 1972 (this was in pre-Murdoch days when it was a campaigning paper). Distillers (Biochemicals) Ltd had marketed thalidomide, a tranquiliser taken by pregnant women, which resulted in hideous deformities in babies. The company used its financial muscle to force many parents into accepting meagre settlements.
The Sunday Times printed an article on this, with the promise of further articles, but the attorney general obtained an injunction at the high court preventing their publication. Although it was overturned by the court of appeal, the House of Lords then upheld the injunction. It went to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled 11-9 that the injunction interfered with the freedom of the press.
I mention these cases because it gives the context to the case of Julian Assange, who has been in prison for three years for the ‘crime’ of having revealed via Wikileaks the gross war crimes of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It says everything about the British judiciary that they have nothing to say about the right to expose war crimes, but are happy to jail and extradite the whistleblowers. This is also true of both the British government and Labour’s pathetic leader, Keir Starmer. The UK government, together with Sweden and the USA, have been complicit in this persecution and attempted in effect to destroy Assange through a web of disinformation and dirty tricks, including fabricating the false charges of rape.
On May 10 I forwarded a letter from the Assange Defence Committee1 to Brighton Kemptown Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle asking him to sign two early day motions (EDMs), which had already been signed by a number of Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent MPs, and even one Tory and a Democratic Unionist Party MP. However, what was palatable to a DUP MP was a step too far for the MP who represents Brighton Kemptown.
I did not envisage that my request would prove controversial, given that EDM 220 simply related to the refusal of the government and prison authorities to allow an online meeting between MPs and Assange, while EDM 719 merely affirmed its “commitment to press freedom and public-interest journalism”. Innocuous in the extreme.
So I was staggered when, on Moyle’s behalf, his PA, Carla May Kavanagh, responded that, since MPs “cannot interfere with decisions made by the courts, he is unable to comment on an ongoing legal matter”. This was a non-sequitur. The whole point of MPs is that they can comment. The EDMs made no mention of any legal matters. Nevertheless, I was assured that “Lloyd believes it is very important that we protect freedom of the press”. In other words, Moyle believes press freedom is important, but refuses to say anything about a case that directly threatens it.
I responded demanding an answer from Moyle directly, not his PA, pointing out: “If Lloyd actually means what he says then he cannot help but speak out against the treatment of Assange.” I asked whether Moyle’s support for freedom of the press was merely “an empty pious phrase, designed to placate myself and others”. I gave him seven days to come back before I went public with his craven response.
Moyle’s stance is based on the idea of judicial ‘neutrality’, whereas in reality judges are highly political, reactionary members of the establishment. Moyle’s response surely demonstrates that the left in parliament today has no class base or analysis. It consists of middle class careerists and nonentities who will occasionally make radical gestures.
Stung by my response, Moyle wrote: “I have no interest in taking up or commenting further on Assange and I will not be singing [sic!] EDMs on it.” And, just in case I was under any doubt, he made clear that he “intended to publicly say nothing on this issue”. I responded by quoting veteran journalist John Pilger that if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is extradited to the US “no journalist who challenges power will be safe”.
At the 2021 Labour Party conference Moyle had taken a day trip to the left when he addressed the annual rally of the Socialist Campaign Group. He told the audience that “this has been a goddamn awful conference with a goddamn awful leadership”. For whatever reason, he laid into Starmer personally, describing him as “not a politician for the Labour Party. I’m afraid that is a reality”. He added that “No politician worth their salt would wage an internal war on the party when we have one of the worst governments in history.”
Moyle has always been an opportunist and his next statement provoked newspaper headlines and a complaint by the so-called Labour Against Anti-Semitism. Referring to those who had been purged from the Labour Party, he said:
I was struck by members who feel alone in our party at the moment. I want to apologise, from me in particular, because if we have made you feel like you are alone, if we have not reached out our arms enough in these tough times when you are being purged or set up with false allegations, I not only apologise: I will endeavour to do better because we have to support each other.2
The Zionist press went crazy and Guido Fawkes reported that the Labour Party was considering removing the whip from Moyle.3 The chair of Kemptown Labour Party, Colin Piper, told members that Lloyd was unlikely to be allowed to stand at the next election. So it was panic stations.
Labour history is, as everyone knows, littered with MPs who prioritised their own career over their socialist principles, while the number of Tony Benns, Jeremy Corbyns, Tam Dalyells and Joan Maynards are few and far between.
Moyle’s promise to “reach out his arms” to those who are purged is breathtaking, given that he scabbed on me and other members of Brighton Labour Party. He had written in secret to anti-Corbyn general secretary Iain McNicol, urging that my expulsion be speeded up, despite the local party having voted to support me!
Nor had Moyle made an exception of me. He took issue with Amanda Bishop, a former white anti-apartheid exile from South Africa, who had suggested in response to the fake ‘anti-Semitism’ allegations and the suspension of a black member of the Labour Party, Alexander Braithwaite, that we should march to a Hove synagogue. Now this might not have been the brightest of ideas, but was it “anti-Semitic”? It was Zionist groups calling themselves Jewish who were responsible for the racist suspension of Alex, so it was quite understandable. And why is a march to a synagogue anti-Semitic anyway? Was I anti-Christian when I took part in a march and picket outside a Worthing evangelical church for organising pickets to harass women at Brighton’s abortion clinic?
Likewise Moyle also condemned a working class young Labour member, Daniel Harris, for putting the faces of three rightwing councillors on a fun video. Apparently this was anti-Semitic! Why? Because according to former MP Ivor Caplin - a defence minister at the time of the Iraq invasion - two of the three councillors “had significant Jewish connections”. In other words all three, including Caroline ‘Poison’ Penn, were non-Jewish. But in the current frenzied atmosphere everything could be anti-Semitic (except genuine anti-Semitism, it seems).
Perhaps Moyle had another consideration when refusing to be associated with the campaign to defend Julian Assange. Starmer was personally responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service’s attempt to extradite Assange. Starmer had worked hand in glove with the Americans and Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, in order to secure an extradition to Sweden on bogus rape charges.
Moyle had already openly mocked Labour’s robotic leader in his speech to the SCG rally, when he said that “the problem is that he might be a very nice man ...” Then he paused, giving a nod and a wink to his audience, who were shouting their hatred of Starmer.
So his card is marked.
Let me turn to a man who has most certainly demonstrated his integrity and honesty when it comes to the Julian Assange case. I refer to Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who has brought out a remarkable book The trial of Julian Assange.4 This should be compulsory reading for anyone who values democratic rights in a society that is rapidly moving to the authoritarian right, with one piece of legislation after another whittling away our right to protest.
Melzer - a professor of international law at Glasgow University and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law - makes the following main points:
- The United States is determined to make an example of Assange for the treasure trove of secrets Wikileaks revealed concerning US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular the ‘collateral murder’ video, which shows a helicopter machine-gunning civilians on a square in Baghdad in July 2007.5 12 people were murdered, including two Reuters journalists.
- The Swedish case of rape was bogus from beginning to end. It was the police who suggested rape, not the women.
- Assange was certainly insensitive in the way he treated two women he slept with on a speaking tour to Sweden, and by all accounts was extremely sexist. But he was not a rapist and at no stage did they make such an accusation.
- Both women were told by the Swedish police that even if they did not want to press charges of rape the police certainly did. There were a number of serious irregularities, such as interviewing the women by phone and not notifying Assange or his lawyer as to what the charges were. Nor were the defence allowed to see the women’s statements.
- The chief prosecutor for Stockholm, Eva Finne cancelled the initial arrest warrant and issued a statement, which included: “I do not believe there is any reason to suspect him of rape.”
- The original interview with one of the women was ‘amended’ without her being consulted. This was used as the basis of the appeal to the director of public prosecutions to reinstate the case.
- When Assange was interviewed by the police, it was promptly leaked to the press despite promises to the contrary. Assange stayed on in Sweden for an extra month, but the moment he took a flight out of Sweden an Interpol arrest warrant was issued, thus giving the impression that he was fleeing justice.
- It is clear that throughout his stay Assange was being monitored and that the US was behind the moves against him. For example, all his credit cards were cancelled while he was away and it does not take much guessing as to who put pressure on the banking companies.
- It is not surprising that the authorities seized on allegations of rape with such alacrity, because nothing was better designed to discredit Assange. Many on the left who should have known better recoiled when they heard what he had been charged with.
- Assange, when he reached London, was immediately subject to extradition proceedings. Assange had no problem in surrendering to the Swedes, but he also suspected that this was a ruse and that he would be rendered to the United States from Britain.
- He sought assurances from Sweden that this would not happen, but the Swedish authorities refused to give them. It was clear that the rape charges were a charade. Contrary to many people’s impressions, Sweden has a very close relationship with US intelligence and was involved in the rendering of two men to the United States in order that they could be tortured and questioned.
- Assange suspected - correctly, as it turned out - that the US was preparing proceedings against him. A secret grand jury was being empanelled. It was this that forced Assange to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy.
A word should be said about the role of the press - in particular The Guardian, which had a whole series of exposes as a result of Assange.
But then, when the heat was turned up and Assange fled into the Ecuadorian embassy, The Guardian turned on him like a venomous snake and betrayed him. Various journalists vented their spleen on Assange, like the bizarre tweet from ex-Guardian journalist Suzanna Moore (who has now decamped to The Daily Telegraph) about Assange stuffing himself with “flattened guinea pigs” and calling him a “massive turd”.6 I guess Moore never did irony well.
But the Lord Haw-Haw prize for yellow journalism surely goes to James Ball, who had worked with Assange. He wrote in January 2018, a mere 16 months before Assange was kidnapped from the embassy: “The only barrier to Julian Assange leaving Ecuador’s embassy is pride.”7 Not content with this prediction, our latter day Nostradamus went on to predict that “The WikiLeaks founder is unlikely to face prosecution in the US, charges in Sweden have been dropped - and, for the embassy, he’s lost his value as an icon.” Ball should be given the Nick Cohen Journalist of the Year prize.
A lot of the attacks on Assange have been viciously personal and have failed to separate out the person, flawed as he is, from the invaluable role that he performed. A good example of this is the interview with British journalist and former ghost-writer for Assange, Andrew O’Hagan. O’Hagan wrote:
Julian scorns all attempts at social graces. He marches through doors and leave women in his wake. He talks over everybody. And all his life he has depended on being the impish one, the eccentric one, the boy with a bag full of Einstein who enjoyed climbing trees. But as a 40-year-old, that’s less charming.8
I have no way of knowing if this is true. But even if it were, bearing in mind Assange’s autism, so what? Is a lack of social graces a crime meriting three years in Belmarsh and false, trumped-up accusations of rape? It would seem that British journalists - the James Balls of this world - allow their own egos to intrude on what is, by any account, a monstrous injustice.
It has always been my view that Assange made the wrong decision when jumping bail and seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. I suspect it was a decision made on impulse. He was right about the US preparing a secret indictment and the rape charges in Sweden being bogus. However, Sweden would not have been able to just drop the charges the moment Assange landed there. They would have followed them through and Assange would undoubtedly have been acquitted, given there was no evidence.
If at that point Sweden had tried to extradite Assange to the United States there would have been, both in Sweden and worldwide, a massive campaign against his forcible extradition to face espionage charges. It is only my own view, but we are now where we are and we can only redouble our efforts.
You can get involved with the Assange Defence Committee at assangedefense.org/supporters.↩︎
There is an excellent review of the book by Jonathan Cook at braveneweurope.com/jonathan-cook-the-persecution-of-julian-assange.↩︎