2010-12-30 Clearing the Air of Nick Davies' Misinformation

Today, Huffington Post published an article by Nick Davies, from the Guardian, in response to Bianca Jagger's Huffpost article. Jagger had been critical of Davies' role in the publication in The Guardian of the details from the police investigation report on the allegations against Julian Assange.

In his article today, Davies states that the publication of the details from the police report served the purpose of balancing out baseless speculation about the Swedish investigation. He claims it was necessary in particular to counterbalance a campaign of misinformation on the part of Wikileaks, and Julian Assange. This is very misleading. The substance of the claim is laid out below.

From Nick Davies: The Julian Assange Investigation -- Let's Clear the Air of Misinformation:

Jagger calls this 'trial by media'. I call it an attempt to inject some evidence into a global debate which has been fueled 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); secondly, 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; thirdly, that Assange's supporters in Stockholm had tried to find evidence and come up empty, concluding, as the Swedish WikiLeaks coordinator 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.

Davies here manages to leave the impression that Assange was engaged in a campaign of misinformation against the integrity of the alleged victims since the allegations began, and was only forced to concede that this was not the case after Davies published the details from the investigation.

This is misleading. The tweet Davies refers to, without citation, is the following:

We were warned to expect "dirty tricks". Now we have the first one: http://bit.ly/bv5ku9
21 Aug

It is clear from the text of the tweet that it does not directly impute "dirty tricks" to the alleged victims of the alleged crimes, as Davies claims Assange did, when he says "Assange used Twitter to spread the idea that the two women who had gone to the police were engaged in 'dirty tricks'." The imputation of "dirty tricks" is far less specific than that, and is consistent with the idea that the allegations are being manipulated by the Swedish prosecutor.

In fact, the suspicion that there may be 'dirty tricks' involved has never, when explicated by Assange, in for instance the recent Frost interview, required any misconduct on the part of the alleged victims. Instead, as there, Assange raises the possibility that the alleged victims might themselves be the victim of said "dirty tricks."

One might also wonder whether Assange had any role in the writing of these tweets, since it is a commonly known fact that a number of Wikileaks staffers use the Wikileaks Twitter account. Immediately subsequent tweets quote Assange in the third person:

Julian Assange: the charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing.
21 Aug

I have compiled, from WL Central's Wikileaks Twitter Archive, a list of all tweets pertinent to the Swedish allegations. It is evident from a perusal of them that the official Twitter account was never, as Davies claims it was, used specifically to impugn the reputation or integrity of the alleged victims. The more extraordinary claims about the provenance of the investigation that can be associated with the official twitter account are to be found only in third party articles linked to by the Wikileaks twitter account. I invite readers to peruse this compendium of tweets, or, if they want, the full twitter archive, or the official twitter account, to find the instances where Assange can be said, as Davies implies that he did, to have alleged a "honey trap."

Davies claims that Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, claimed Assange had been the victim of a "honey trap." He fails to cite this claim. I have not been able to locate it. I would appreciate a citation of this claim. Nonetheless, it has to be pointed out that (below) Assange is on record as saying that Stephens claims he was misquoted. Further again, if it is in fact true that Stephens made this claim, it would be a mistake to blame Assange for this misinformation, although it would also be commendable that evidence against the claim might be fielded.

Davies gives the impression, in the last paragraph quoted above, that Assange "was forced to admit" that there was no evidence of a "honey trap". This phrasing insinuates that Assange in fact alleged that he was the victim of a "honey trap" and implies that he lately admitted to having so alleged, while explicitly renouncing the idea. In fact, again, this is misleading. In the BBC interview, for instance, Assange clearly stated that he never claimed that he had been the victim of a "honey trap."

From John Humphries: BBC Interview with Julian Assange (Transcript):

Q: So you're not suggesting that this was a honey-trap? That you were somehow set up by the Americans, by the CIA? You don't buy into that idea because your lawyer's suggested that that's the case.
JA: He says that he was misquoted. I have never said that this is a honey-trap.
Q: You don't believe it?
JA: I have never said that this is not a honey-trap. I'm not accusing anyone until I have proof.
Q: Do you believe it is possible?
JA: That's not how I operate as a journalist because almost everything is possible. I talk about what is probable.
Q: All right, what do you think is probable here?
JA: What is probable? It is less probable that there was that type of involvement at the very beginning. That kind of classic Russian-Moscow thing. That is not probable.

Davies implies in his criticism of Assange's supporters that we must not be "content to recycle falsehood and distortion no matter what damage they may do." I commend Nick Davies' sentiments in this direction, and also commend his injection of scant factual material into an environment of media misinformation.

I cannot, however, commend the partial and inflammatory manner in which he defends his actions, nor the misleading vividness with which he portrays the words and actions of Julian Assange. It is not for me to speculate on why he might have abandoned the emotional distance from his work that one would expect from so apparently conscientious a journalist. It will suffice merely to point out the extent to which he errs, or has misled, and I have tried to do that here.