We are witnessing one of the most serious attacks on journalism in recent times. A simple retraction and apology will not be enough.Last week, The Guardian published a “bombshell” front-page story asserting, without producing any evidence, that Julian Assange had secretly met the recently convicted former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in 2013, 2015 and 2016. The Guardian‘s attack on Assange came only days after it was confirmed that he has been indicted some time ago, under seal, and that the U.S. will seek his extradition from the UK. The story was published just hours before a hearing brought by media groups trying to stop the US government from keeping its attempts to extradite Assange secret.
The story went viral, repeated uncritically by many media outlets around the world, including Newsweek. This falsely cast Assange into the center of a conspiracy between Putin and Trump. The Guardian even had the gall to post a call to its readers to donate to protect “independent journalism when factual, trustworthy reporting is under threat.”
These three meetings with Manafort did not happen.
As The Guardian admitted, the Embassy’s visitor logs show no such visits. The Guardian claims they saw a separate internal document written by Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency that lists “Paul Manaford [sic]” as one of several well-known guests.’
Manafort, through his spokesman, has stated: “This story is totally false and deliberately libelous. I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him.”
It appears The Guardian editors tried to backpedal from the original story with post-publication stealth edits, but they have not issued a correction or apology.
The journalists who wrote this story must surely know that guests who enter the embassy must be registered in logs, as pointed out by the former first secretary at the Ecuadorian Embassy from 2010 to July 2018.
Ecuadorian intelligence has spent millions of dollars on setting up security cameras inside its embassy in London to monitor Julian Assange and his visitors. The Guardian has previously published still shots from those cameras. However, in the case of the claimed Manafort visit, they apparently demanded no such verification.
They also overlooked the simple fact that millions of pounds have been spent over the years by the Metropolitan police and secret services on monitoring the entrances of the embassy 24/7.
This is part of a series of stories from The Guardian, such as its recent claim of a “Russia escape plot” to enable Assange to flee the embassy, which is not true.
What do these stories have in common? They all give the UK and Ecuador political cover to arrest Assange and for the US to extradite him. Any journalists worth their salt should be investigating who is involved in these plots.
Mike Pompeo, when he was CIA director, said the U.S. was “working to take down” WikiLeaks. This was months after WikiLeaks released thousands of files on the CIA, the “largest leak of CIA documents in history,” called Vault 7. The Guardian seems determined to link Assange to Russia, in full knowledge that such claims are prejudicial in the context of Mueller’s probe in the US and the Democratic National Committee lawsuit against WikiLeaks.
Numerous commentators have criticized The Guardian for its coverage of Assange. Glenn Greenwald, former columnist for The Guardian, writes that the paper has “…such a pervasive and unprofessionally personal hatred for Julian Assange that it has frequently dispensed with all journalistic standards in order to malign him.” Another former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, writes: “The propaganda function of the piece is patent. It is intended to provide evidence for long-standing allegations that Assange conspired with Trump, and Trump’s supposed backers in the Kremlin, to damage Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race.”
Hours before The Guardian published its article, WikiLeaks received knowledge of the story and “outed” it, with a denial, to its 5.4 million Twitter followers. The story then made the front page, and The Guardian asserted they had not received a denial prior to publication—as they had failed to contact the correct person.
A simple retraction and apology will not be enough. This persecution of Assange is one of the most serious attacks on journalism in recent times.
Kristinn Hrafnsson is an Icelandic investigative journalist who has worked with WikiLeaks since 2009, as spokesperson for the organization from 2010 to 2016 and editor-in-chief since September 2018.