2011-03-20 Another example of the Guardian’s creative ‘redacting’

Submitted by Bella Magnani

Oh dear, Nick Davies, what went wrong?

Back in 2008 you wrote a book called Flat Earth News, a meticulously researched and scathing analysis of journalistic corruption and murky practices in British newspapers. You told us: “the modern newsroom is a place of bungs and bribes, whose occupants forage illicitly for scoops in databases and dustbins. Newspapers hold others to account while hushing up their own unsavoury methods. Self-regulation does not always offer fair (or any) redress to citizens who have had lies written about them. Stories are often pompous, biased or plain wrong. Some close scrutiny is not only legitimate: it is overdue.” Ed: The quote in this paragraph is quoting a review of Nick Davies book printed in the Guardian (see link), not Nick Davies book as is erroneously implied.

Ugh! Sounds nasty. So glad you took the moral high ground there and called so passionately for journalistic standards to be above reproach, lest readers end up “soaked in disinformation”. Warming to your theme, in another Guardian article - Our media have become mass producers of distortion - you let rip:

“Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have gene rally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”

And here you are telling us about the Guardian’s Hay Festival debate on falsehood and distortion in the news: “Faith in 'quality journalism' has never been lower, but public demand for fair and accurate reporting is undiminished”.

Trust me, dear Reader – nice touch, Nick. Thank you, I’ll try.

It’s become a bit of an obsession with you, this drive to expose tabloid corruption and the failings of the press. You even wrote to your MP about it. Well, everyone’s MP actually.

In fact, you rarely cover anything else nowadays – 65 articles (and counting) about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal you’ve been pursuing relentlessly for three years now. Oh, there’s been a few on the Afghanistan War Logs (3), the Iraq War Logs (3), the Swiss bank whistleblower (4), Julian Assange (2), and a couple of weird ones claiming sex trafficking in Europe doesn’t really exist. But ever since your last article on Assange you’ve devoted yourself exclusively to exposing scurrilous journalists.

Here’s one from December 12 last year. Your words:

“Here's the riddle. If the Guardian, the New York Times and Channel 4's Dispatches can all find numerous journalists who worked at the News of the World who without exception insist that the newspaper routinely used private investigators to gather information by illegal means, why can't Scotland Yard find a single one who will tell them the story?”

Yes, it’s a riddle, isn’t it? The strapline on the article puts it even better:

If the Guardian can find numerous News of the World journalists who admit that the newspaper gathered information by illegal means, why can't Scotland Yard? asks Nick Davies.

December 12? Wasn’t that the day the illegally leaked police protocol from Sweden landed on your desk? You know, the one you used to produce “10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange” a few days later, which you said was based on “unredacted statements held by prosecutors in Stockholm”? Well, the world now knows just how ‘unredacted’ your article was. Hmm … your employers are in a bit of bother over that at the moment too, aren’t they ? “Cooking” cables from Russia and Bulgaria and all that. Time to call a staff meeting, Nick – they need a fearless crusader for press truth like you to knock ‘em back into shape.

Here’s the riddle, Nick: why an award-winning investigative journalist couldn’t see the many, many holes in the police investigation sitting on the desk in front of him. The personal and political association of the first investigative officer with one of the complainants; the disturbing news that she was allowed to sit in on the other woman’s interview; the tampering with statements on the police computer; the two women being allowed to produce revised statements on September 2 in the light of the so-far still secret SMS messages; the police asking a witness about a victim’s prior sex life (WTF?); the failure of police forensics to find DNA on the torn, supposedly used condom presented to police 12 days after the event.

And that’s just the tip of a very big iceberg - there’s plenty more beneath the surface.

So, Nick Davies, why did you choose to publish an article based on only one side of the story? In an alleged rape case? Would you consider that good journalistic practice? Or a disgrace to your profession?

Surely any investigative journalist worth his salt could have – would have – torn this ‘story’ to shreds, and called them on it, publicly. Why didn’t that happen here? All of the information above – and more – was available by December 12. Instead, in your “unredacted” version, we got the ‘juiciest’ quotes from the witness statements while others, which flatly contradicted them, were ignored. Of the many questions about police abuse of process raised by the protocol, we got none. And on how the police report came to fall into your hands, we got silence.

Nick Davies' article history.

Response to Nick Davies' corrections

Dear Nick,

I stand corrected.

You’re quite right, that opening quote was from a review of your book, which I took to be a direct quotation from it. My mistake. (See how easy that is?) I’m surprised you don’t know who wrote it though – I got it from your article history. The link to it is in your Trust me, dear Reader piece (see above).

The rest of my article I stand by. All of the points I list, all of that information was – by 12 December – either in the police protocol itself, or easily available to a good investigative journalist. It is simply not true to say none of the points appear in any of those statements.
An example: you said Witness F regarded Miss A as “very, very credible”, yet even a cursory read of his full statement - you do believe in careful reading, don't you? - makes it clear that’s only how he saw her when they first met; by the time he’d heard three different versions of events from her he saw her as anything but, and said so – plainly – to the police. On 20 September. What “updated police records” are you talking about? Is there something we should all know?

Want another example? Ok then, how about leaving unquestioned the fact that one statement consists of the police asking a victim’s ex-boyfriend about her love life? Is that normal in a rape investigation in your 34 years’ experience as a reporter? Funny, I’d always thought that sort of stuff was completely inadmissible as evidence. The “Swedish police found no evidence of any dirty tricks” (from your HuffPo link). No, but YOU should have. Theirs.

Sorry Nick, but that’s highly selective and biased reporting in my book.

True, Assange's legal team may well have possessed the same police statements as you - in Swedish. Unfortunately, unlike you, nipping round the corner for a quick translation wasn't good enough for their purposes; they had to wait for expensive, court-approved translations. No wonder they had to rely on your list of key points for their rebuttal. True, you did include that - not with quite the same focus and attention you gave all those lovely 'juicy' details, mind, but hey - you're only reporting rape allegations. Can't do any harm, can it?

And, come off it Nick, since when did a pre-trial police file in a criminal investigation become “legal paperwork”? I never said the police statements were leaked illegally to you, just that they were illegally leaked. I’m well aware – as you are, hence your careful assertion that you “received unauthorised access” – at which point and in what ways this leak broke Swedish law. That was the whole point of my article – it’s your hobby horse, your thing, to expose OTHER newspapers who get information by illegal means. Why haven’t you gone after how Espressen got their scoop?

Bad move, IMHO, to link that HuffPo piece – doesn’t make you look good in hindsight. Still, it was interesting to learn you “didn't write the story which the Guardian published. The copy which I filed was completely re-written in the Guardian office”. Can’t very well sue your employers though, can you? Never mind, go do your thing. Go “inject some evidence into a global debate”. Go write “7 Months Later in Sweden” – a proper, fair and balanced, article based on the facts. That should give you some redress.


Sorry for the slow posting. I've only just come across this article. I'm afraid you've been misinformed. You list points which you say that we failed to mention when we wrote about the unredacted statements held by prosecutors in Sweden. But none of those points appears in any of those statements. They emerged only later, in updated police records or in the Swedish press. As we said in the story, the Swedish police statements which we had were also at that same time in the possession of Julian and his lawyers. Like the Guardian, they didn't at that time quote any of the points which you list - because they weren't yet there to be made.

You say that what we published was based on only one side of the story. But if you read it, you will see that repeatedly we recorded points in Julian's defence. We also delayed publication for four days so that Julian and his lawyer could add anything else which they chose to. His lawyer produced a detailed statement which we included.

There are a few other points from your article which also ought to be corrected:
You begin your article with a quote about the modern newsroom which you say that I wrote; I didn't write that and don't know who did.
You say the leaked police statements were leaked to us illegally; it's not a criminal offence to leak legal paperwork.
You say we have stayed silent on how we came by the statements. We haven't. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-davies/post_1506_b_802680.html

Thanks for allowing me to post. Nick

As a WL Central writer, I've

As a WL Central writer, I've been asked a few times to weigh in here. I've avoided doing so because I'm not sure what I'll say will be celebrated. But I will.

I don't stand by Nick's original article, "10 days in Sweden." Most of the accounts in it were known to us at the time of publication, and many anomalies known to us at that time from a close reading of the Swedish press were omitted. I also felt that at certain points, in Nick's account of the history of this Sweden story, distortions were occurring. I took issue with those distortions here.

Nevertheless, I believe Nick is in part right in his comment here. The misquote was really quite serious in this article, and demonstrated a rather alarming lack of diligence. It was a serious error. I find the corresponding retraction troubling. Apologizing for - and retracting - that error shouldn't be seen an opportunity to goad Nick further. ("see how it easy it is?" really?) If you want to take the moral high ground in a piece of writing, you have to be damn good at climbing it. A deserved apology isn't the best activity during which to be trying to score points.

As for the "cooking of cables" allegation, there is a diversity of opinion on this here, I see. Since Israel Shamir started casting those aspersions around, I've said (at length, here) that I don't think there's a lot in it. I don't feel the Guardian has acted impeccably with this whole matter, and I think David Leigh has taken leave of his senses on his twitter account, but I don't think the Guardian is deliberately avoiding printing primetime news for surreptitious reasons. As I said in the aforelinked article, I think the libel risk explanation is sound, especially to anyone with a familiarity with UK libel law. The law really is that crazy, and the Guardian has fought its corner in this ring. It just has to choose which fights it gets into. The parties it has chosen to report gossip on are unlikely to file suit. The ones it has apparently avoided are far more litigation-happy. It's sad that a newspaper has to gag itself like this. Perhaps the Guardian should transplant to Iceland.

I will say to Nick that in many cases, here, you are dealing with people who obsessively followed every bit of information in the story, as it developed, often unlimited by the constraints of full time work, and often as adept at, if you will, "information forensics" as anyone can be. This story has bought our attention like no other ever has. These people, myself included, have found ourselves in the odd position of knowing more about unfolding events than the people whose job it was to inform us about it. We've found ourselves reading the newspapers, not to be informed, but to spot lies, bias and laziness. It has been disillusioning.

For us, every omission, every inaccuracy, every interpretation underfunded by the facts, has stuck out like a sore thumb. Through Swedish channels, we already knew most of what was reported in your December article, and we found ourselves wondering why you hadn't aired the more complete version we'd reconstructed. Skdadl has covered this well, so I shall not dwell on it. I'll say that the term "honeytrap" originated in connection with this matter in the Swedish coverage. It was a translation from the term "sexfalla," which was doing the rounds in the Swedish tabloids and blogs in the weeks after the sex allegations came out. Its vector here was the blogosphere, but it was soon being used by the less cautious, less sensitive, and more conspiracy-prone of writers in the corporate blogosphere. It was certainly not commendable that Mark Stevens chose to use the term.

As I've pointed out here, you claimed that Assange was smearing the victims from the outset, using the twitter account, but we have archives of all the tweets from the WL twitter account, and it is apparent to anyone who consults them that this is not true. Perhaps you remembered it differently, but the internet has a long memory.

To the best of my knowledge, you've stayed away from this controversy for a few months. I wasn't that impressed with the article in December, but I can see how what you've said in its defense could be seen, from your perspective, as reasonable. I just don't think you've been as diligent with the facts as you could have been.

Your colleague, David Leigh, on the other hand, really seems to have lost his ability to perform valid inferences. It's rather worrying. His twitter account is a daily font of unreasonable accusations, insinuations, and dubious counterfactual narratives. It is at turns infuriating and embarrassing to read him. Someone should really have a word with him.

Let's do some quoting

The hed on Davies' 17 December article in the Guardian:

10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange

The lede for that article:

Documents seen by the Guardian reveal for the first time the full details of the allegations of rape and sexual assault that have led to extradition hearings against the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

Now, anyone who had been following the case closely since August knew immediately that that repeated claim -- the "full" details -- could not possibly be true. For one, Bjorn Hurtig had already spoken publicly about evidence the prosecutor had allowed him to see but had not released to him, evidence that still has not been published (the SMS messages, eg) but which has been described in court. Also, both complainants had given second statements in formal hearings, some time after their original statements to the police; again, those statements have still not been made public. It quickly became clear from a reading of Davies' article that, to begin with, he had seen none of that material. Since Assange himself had not been granted the follow-up formal hearing the two complainants had (it's clear from his police statement that he knew little of what the complaints actually were), in spite of repeated requests, Davies didn't have that data either. All this was known -- or at least knowable -- on 17 December 2010.

Since Rixstep has since translated and published as many of the police documents as are on the loose (still not all the evidence: see above), we can compare the (often curious) police files to what Nick Davies, claiming to have the "full details," wrote. Read, for instance, the statement of Witness F, which Rixstep (reasonably, imo) concludes was an obvious source that Davies would have seen. Selective quotation much? Witness F states repeatedly that something about Anna Ardin's consecutive statements to him at the time didn't add up, although he clearly has no animus against her -- he just remains bothered by all the contradictions. That's what I took away from that interview anyway. Maybe Nick Davies didn't have the "full" transcript after all, though. Or maybe we just read differently.

To the subject of the SMS messages and who originally outed the complainants: Again, anyone following the story at the time knows that the two complainants outed themselves immediately in the fairly small and intense political world where one operated at a moderately influential level. It's hard to know how willingly Wilen joined in anything that happened, but Anna Ardin's world -- which included an online journal, Rebella -- was abuzz immediately, and loudly enough that commenters on Nicholas Mead's London-based blog were informed almost daily of what she and her supporters were saying. At some point that stopped, presumably because Borgstrom put a lid on it, but almost all the gossip in the early days was coming from Ardin's camp.

Assange himself sounded stunned and confused. It is a lie, often pushed by Guardian writers, that he claimed immediately that the CIA were behind the accusations. His early statements were all very careful, raising the full range of possibilities, exactly the same possibilities that everyone else was reasonably running through at the time. You can see in the police statements that a couple of the witnesses had earlier thought, all on their own, of the case of Mordecai Vanunu and warned Assange that he could be vulnerable to such ops. Any semi-aware person would think of the same possibility right away, and many of us did, all on our own. I don't know who first used the despicable term "honeypot," but it wasn't Assange, and it couldn't have been Mark Stephens, who wasn't in the game at that point. Assange is hardly responsible for things others might have written or said, however well intentioned.

Anyway, there have been a lot of people in Stockholm who've known bits and pieces of the SMS story from the start -- don't know how that soupy atmosphere could have escaped a good reporter's attention. In that context, Assange remained horribly restrained from saying anything for a long time, and he still hasn't had anything close to his say, for obvious legal reasons, even as Claes Borgstrom rabbits on in a way that would never be allowed in my country (Canada) without censure.

About the ethics of Swedish police or prosecutors handing on documents: You can see from the opening of the statement of Witness E that the authorities seem to follow a shifty, hard-to-define protocol of handing out statements of public interest if they are requested, but maybe subject to redaction. I found the police interrogator's answers to Witness E's questions on that score very hard to follow, but they apparently do feel free to release quite a lot -- especially if you happen to be Expressen, I guess, or depending on the weather. Can anyone else make more sense of it than that?

Since all this happened, we have learned much more. As Assange himself said, this may have begun as a purely personal matter, but there is no question that it has been politicized since in several escalations, some local to Sweden, some undoubtedly to do with US pressure. The history of Mr Borgstrom's partner, Mr Bodstrom, is of particular interest, especially if we're concerned about illegal kidnappings and torture winked at by Swedish justice ministers and even Swedish courts.

Well, I tend to be concerned about those sorts of things (I work on torture), but I guess Nick Davies isn't. Apparently no one ever told Nick Davies that the hardest thing to do in writing is to make a description of a sex act sound anything but ridiculous. Oh -- maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that is exactly what Nick Davies knew when he wrote that trash in December. Anyone can be made to sound ridiculous if you have the opportunity (such a word for the Guardian) to describe him or her engaged in sexual activities -- anyone. Nick Davies' sex life would sound ridiculous if any of us could observe and describe it. Mine would; yours would. That's why the winners of the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award in the UK are almost always great writers, who almost always fall flat on their faces when they try to write about sex. I'm definitely nominating Nick Davies for this year's award.

If anything convinced many of us of the animus behind the Guardian's slanted coverage of Assange, it was the stream of sniggery tweets that began to issue from David Leigh's computer immediately after Davies' piece was published. It took me a long time to believe what I was reading and to accept that senior editors at the Guardian really were that petty, that schoolboyish, that intent on destroying a person, for reasons that still are not clear to me.

A lot of us have come to the conclusion that Guardian editors and writers are afraid of something, maybe something that Assange can reveal or is working on to reveal in his upcoming book. My best guess has something to do with laundry ... and I'm not talking socks, either.

Meanwhile, Assange has been stripped bare in public. David Leigh makes snide insinuations about his responsibility for the plight of Bradley Manning, apparently unconcerned that it is the US government that put Manning in prison; it is the US government that is torturing Manning; and it is the US government that would do the same to Assange if they could get their hands on him, law be damned (and they have damned many of their own laws).

Nick Davies, are you old enough to remember Senator McCarthy and HUAC? I am. You will go down in history as one of the worms who collaborated with similar forces in our time right now.

Allow me to add to this rebuttal...

The background on Bella Magnani's article above can be found here:


"[...] Davies repeatedly refers to the character witness who's since given interviews to AOL News amongst other publications. Davies cites the fact the witness told the police Anna Ardin was 'credible'.

This is deliberately twisted by Nick Davies in a malicious way: the witness (Donald Boström) was actually saying Anna Ardin was a damned good liar.

Boström repeatedly pointed out to the police that Ardin had demonstrably hoodwinked him on a number of occasions and in the end had given him five different versions of what had happened. This is all part of the one and only interrogation Boström participated in. Nick Davies had access to that complete interrogation. He consciously chose to skew it..."

The Guardian is repeatedly overlooking the fact that we, the public, now have access to information they once had privilege to, and we can now call them to account. And we will not stop doing this.

...well said...

...wow what true words Bella...would hate to be in the dock if you were prosecuting lmao...WELL DONE!

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