Julian Assange loses PCC complaint against New Statesman

Review of unauthorised biography contained no breach of the code, regulator finds.

Transparency campaigner Julian Assange has lost a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission over a book review in the New Statesman.

In a piece headlined "Every Stone Unturned", a review of the "unauthorised autobiography" of Assange published by Canongate, James Ball wrote:

[Andrew] O'Hagan's writing is at its best covering Assange's early life: a nomadic existence in rural Australia, replete with floppy disks hidden in beehives and nightly forays through secure servers. Yet even here, the strident note familiar from Assange's public pronouncements often vanishes, replaced with the mannerisms of a British aesthete. "It occurred to me on the steps of the court that I had travelled a very long way to see such snow," he muses after being granted bail on sexual assault charges in December. The language and tone are wholly uncharacteristic.

Assange believed that the reference here to "charges" was in breach of the PCC code. "I have not been charged with any offence and this statement therefore represents a significant and misleading inaccuracy. The facts are not hard to establish -- a matter of basic fact-checking -- and a correction should be printed with due prominence." He added that the article contributed to a "hostile media climate" and "a reduction in my ability to raise revenue for Wikileaks through loss of reputation".

The PCC disagreed, ruling:

It was not in dispute that the complainant had not been formally charged by Swedish authorities. As such, a claim that Swedish prosecutors had formally indicted the complainant with offences would clearly raise a breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors' Code. However, the articles under complaint had not made such a claim: rather they had alluded to "charges" more generally. In the view of the Commission, this conveyed to readers, accurately, that the complainant was being accused by Swedish prosecuting authorities of having committed the offences (and that prosecutors were seeking his extradition with a view to his potentially being tried for those offences).

The PCC wrote to the editor of the NS, Jason Cowley, to inform him that the complaint "raised no breach of the Code of Practice and did not require further investigation. That is why we have not contacted you."

In the interests of transparency and freedom of information, the New Statesman has uploaded the PCC judgement (here) and covering letter (here).

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.