The bizarre legal world of WikiLeaks

Guardian book serialisation accused of containing "malicious libels".

In an extraordinary development, WikiLeaks appears to be threatening legal action over the serialisation in the Guardian of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.

The wording of the Tweet is worth considering carefully:

"The Guardian book serialization contains malicious libels. We will be taking action."

First, the use of "we" suggests that the (presumably legal) "action" is threatened by WikiLeaks as an entity, rather than by any particular individual such as its founder Julian Assange. This suggestion is supported by the fact it was sent on the official WikiLeaks Twitter feed. If this is the case, then WikiLeaks may be following the unhappy example of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) and other organisations in making libel threats in respect of unwelcome scrutiny and comment. And, as with the BCA, such a course of action can quickly be seen as illiberal and misconceived.

Second, the alleged libels are not just your normal libels but "malicious" libels. This may be careless verbiage, but presumably this tweet was checked by a legal adviser before publication. If the invocation of "malice" was deliberate, this would be a serious (indeed defamatory) accusation against the Guardian: not only is the serialisation defaming Wikileaks, it is doing so with the wrongful motive of doing damage to WikiLeaks. However, WikiLeaks has presented no evidence of such malice.

Furthermore, WikiLeaks has not even specified the alleged libels. It has instead made a bare and vague threat, the very sort of corporate attempt to deter public scrutiny which has led many to support the libel reform campaign.

But, as the founder of WikiLeaks himself recently signed the Libel Reform petition, there is the question as to whether there is a lack of consistency with this threat to bring a libel claim against the Guardian.

In any event, the use of a libel threat makes it clear that although WikiLeaks promotes transparency and openness for others, it does not really enjoy being scrutinised itself.

This basic lack of intellectual and legal consistency can be seen elsewhere. For example, it is reported that Assange believes WikiLeaks has some form of legal ownership in the confidential and secret information that it proposes to publish. This is an astonishing and legally incorrect view, especially when a great deal of that information was provided in breach of civil and criminal law. Assange even threatened to sue the Guardian on this remarkable basis.

David Leigh, the co-author of the serialised book, calls this latest legal threat "comical". That is a generous word, and the threat at least warrants the application of the leading case of Arkell v Pressdram. However, in my view, the threat is more discrediting and worrying than funny.

The Guardian has confirmed no formal threat has been received; it may never now be sent. But whether the threat was made in earnest or not, it is another troubling indication of the increasingly muddled and paranoid world of WikiLeaks.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.