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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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