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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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.