A decision by The Scott Trust’s Review Panel should force The Guardian newspaper to issue a clarification in an article where the newspaper claimed the existence of an alleged Russian “plot” to “smuggle” Julian Assange out of the Embassy of Ecuador in London.
The decision on November 14th this year followed a formal complaint by the former Consul of Ecuador Fidel Narvaez, in October 2018, challenging the newspaper to substantiate its assertion, which he described as “false and defamatory”. A correction was published by The Guardian last Friday, December 20th.
The Review Panel, has determined that the article “Revealed: Russia’s Christmas Eve plot to smuggle Assange out of UK“, breached the “Accuracy” principle of the Code of Conduct of the Press Complaints Commission in England.
The Review Panel is composed of John Willis, the former Guardian News & Media external ombudsman, Bafta deputy chairman and chief executive of Mentorn Media; Geraldine Proudler, partner at Olswang and board member of the Guardian Foundation; the legal and journalism academic Richard Danbury, and Elinor Goodman, former political editor of Channel 4 News, and one of six panel members at the Leveson inquiry
After a process that lasted 13 months from Narvaez’s initial complaint, The Review Panel concluded that the article “gives a misleading impression to readers …” breaking clause 1 (ii) of the Code of Conduct, which states that: “The press must be careful not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information… “, validating the claims of Ecuadorian former diplomat Fidel Narváez. His complaint was therefore upheld, which is a rare outcome for this process.
The article claimed that “Russian diplomats held secret talks in London last year with people close to Julian Assange to assess whether they could help him flee the UK”, but after an investigation, the Review Panel found that the paper could not substantiate the claim that Russia had instigated any “escape” plot for Julian Assange.
Consequently, according to the unanimous ruling, the newspaper must now clarify that:
“The plan in relation to Mr Assange’s ability to be able to leave the Ecuadorean embassy was not devised or instigated by Russia”; and
“There was nothing illicit about the “plan” as described in the Article and that it would have involved the legitimate use of diplomatic immunity to allow Assange to leave Embassy and travel to a third country.”
In his appeal, Fidel Narváez accused journalists Luke Harding, Dan Collyns and Stephanie Kirchgaessner of “lack of professionalism and basic ethical standards” and of “hiding behind confidential journalistic sources that are lying and feeding misinformation to the newspaper…”
Narvaez contested the Guardian’s Reader’s Editor and the Managing Editor’s defence of the story by pointing out that “the Guardian journalists had relied heavily on information sourced from UC Global, the private security company currently being investigated for allegedly committing espionage at the Embassy of Ecuador for the CIA”.
The journalists Harding and Collyns are the same people who authored the infamous article: “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy”. As Fidel Narvaez pointed out: “the article resulted in a historic journalistic fiasco for The Guardian, for again publishing false information”.
According to information on The Guardian’s website, the Review Panel has previously upheld only three complaints since it was established in 2014 as an arbitrator of last resort on claims against the newspaper.
Alan Rusbridger, ex-Editor of The Guardian has referred to the decision as “…an impressive example of independent self-regulation”.
Fidel Narvaez initially welcomed the fact that the newspaper’s oversight mechanism is compelling The Guardian to acknowledge that it had misinformed the public, but has complained that the ruling fails to compel the newspaper to make a public apology to him personally, since the article had implicated him in a non-existent defamatory plot.
The ex-diplomat also disagreed with the prominence of the clarification made by the newspaper.
“The Guardian has failed to amend the totally misleading article even after a ruling of its own oversight body has determined that it should do so. By changing two words in the heading but leaving the content intact, the article of course remains misleading. There was never a plan to ‘whisk’ Julian Assange from the embassy, much less “secret talks with Russian diplomats in London” said the former diplomat, adding that he will pursue a proper clarification even if he has to resort to legal action.
“The coverage of Assange is often prejudiced and very rarely objective. The coverage in The Guardian in 2018 was one of the worst, and when it is false it must be confronted. Julian Assange’s extradition to the US is the greatest threat to freedom of expression in our generation. I hope that this ruling contributes to greater impartiality in the media coverage of this issue and, ultimately, that Julian’s extradition can be avoided through accurate reporting” said the ex-Consul.