Julian Assange WikiLeaks

Does The Guardian’s latest “expose” on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — currently falling apart in real time — represent its greatest fail yet, in its long and tempestuous history with the Prisoner of Knightsbridge?

Last week, the paper claimed that Assange had held secret meetings with Trump associate Paul Manafort all the way back in 2012. These deep background stories were soon discredited by embassy security officials of the time.

Now it appears that The Guardian is relying for its info on the representative of a US-funded NGO, whom they briefly bylined — and then de-bylined — as a contributor. What’s going on?

The accusations, made by Guardian Russian specialist Luke Harding and Dan Collyns, both of whom have been based in Quito for a while, were bizarre from the start: Ecuadorian security services, speaking anonymously of course, claimed that a “Paul Manaford” had met with Assange, months after he had gone into the embassy, granted asylum.

Manafort, then a mid-level political fixer of no great import, was allegedly “waved through” the stringent security which was then being applied to everyone from politicians to Lady Gaga (as my colleague Keane recorded). The accusation made no sense — save of course to explain why there was no record of a Manafort visit. And the Ecuadorian consul of the time, Fidel Narváez, soon came out to debunk the story.

Having splashed the story with a tabloid headline — “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy”, The Guardian soon retreated to the less sexy ‘“Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say”. According to an analysis by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, it inserted qualifiers, denials and words like “hoax” into the text, quietly changing much of the tense of the report to the conditional.

Unnamed sources are bad enough for such tendentious stories, but even more astounding is a key and explicit source that Harding and Collyns are using: Fernando Villavicencio, director of a US-funded political NGO Fundamedios. Harding and Collyns have been working with Villavicencio for months, as Villavicencio has recorded. Yet Villavicencio is a hardcore anti-Rafael Correa activist, who was sued by Correa — the former president of Ecuador — for libel in 2010 after a months long campaign of misinformation (he was found to have falsely alleged Correa ordered police to fire on protesters).

As a captured archive shot of The Guardian story’s first appearance shows, Villavicencio was originally listed as not a source but a co-author of the story. His byline quickly disappeared.

But Villavicencio is a strange person for The Guardian to trust, having previous form: in 2013 he supplied a 2009 document allegedly showing a Chinese deal with Ecuador to mine the Amazon basin. That deal had never gone ahead: Villavicencio had doctored the original 2009 document on which the story was based. The Guardian withdrew the document from its archive for two weeks and republished it without the doctored text. An independent report on Villavicencio details his extensive links with US “pro-democracy” groups whose principle purpose was to subvert South American independence during the continent’s “pink wave”.

The Guardian hasn’t yet commented on the significant shift in its story from an alleged “smoking gun” of WikiLeaks-Russia collusion, to “unnamed sources reckon”. But they had some unsolicited help in Politico from an ex-CIA advisor writing anonymously, of course, to claim that Harding and Collyns were the victims of a sting by pro-Russian elements — providing false news that would later discredit the pair!

All three of The Guardian journalists who worked closely with Assange and WikiLeaks are now shown to have played fast and loose with reporting on the organisation. Nick Davies, who fell out with Assange before the “Cablegate” archive was released, gave a skewed report of the Swedish police report on accusations of sex crimes against Assange, days before his first extradition hearing (the report was leaked by a former WikiLeaks associate who went onto a series of plum media jobs).

In 2010, David Leigh revealed the full password of the “Cablegate” archive, in a quickie WikiLeaks books with Harding — and then spent months accusing Assange of making the unredacted cables generally available, before admitting his error.

Now The Guardian is running stories by Russia expert Harding, whose highly tendentious book Collusion, on alleged Russian interference in the US election, has enjoyed best-seller status.

The Guardian for all its sniffiness is increasingly resorting to tabloid tactics to ensure clicks — as it did in the notorious, false accusation that Murdoch journalists had hacked a murdered teenager’s phone.

But perhaps the most concerning part is the attempt by an ex-CIA officer — we have to take that on trust from Politico — to offer an anti-Russia defence of The Guardian’s apparent tabloid hunger and journalistic careerism. Now why on earth would that be? Could it be that The Guardian’s Hillary Clinton imperial centre attacks on anti-US governments is more useful than standard right-wing attacks?

Whatever the case, The Guardian has disgraced itself utterly, and trashed its “facts are sacred” mantra in this, its latest obsessive pursuit of WikiLeaks. Either editor Katherine Viner is in on this or Rusbridger’s old Oxbridge crew are simply continuing to run their own writ in the organisation. Either way, if you’re the sort of person who has contributed to both WikiLeaks and The Guardian in the past on the grounds of challenging power, you might want to consider what the latter organisation is doing with your money.

WikiLeaks is currently crowdfunding to sue The Guardian for libel. Manafort is now accused of trying to broker a deal with Ecuador to “sell” Assange to the US in exchange for facilitating a Chinese investment deal. The WikiLeaks whirligig continues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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