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That Julian Assange has been at the Leveson inquiry into Press Standards complaining about the Press Complaints Commission’s failure to uphold his complaints. I think.
Assange, he say: “[The PCC] found that although I had not been formally charged it was, nonetheless, perfectly acceptable for newspapers to say that I had been charged with rape as being “charged” with an offence is seen as the same as a mere allegation; this, despite the clear imputation in these newspaper articles that I have been formally charged, and all the other imputations that flow from that about the reasonableness of the case against me.”
On the face of it, Assange’s case seems pretty reasonable. The New Statesman article in question does not casually refer to him having been “charged” with carrying out the actions in question as if by critics unknown; it specifically uses the term in the context of judicial authority, referring to Assange’s statement outside the court “after being granted bail on sexual assault charges in December.”
Whilst no proof of wrongdoing on the NS’ part, it is also worth noting that The Sun published a correction in relation to a similar statement: “On July 14 we reported that Julian Assange was on bail as he appealed against a ruling to have him extradited to Sweden to face two charges of rape. In fact Mr Assange has not so far been charged with any offence, and one allegation is of molestation, not rape.”
The magazine’s defence is an interesting one, though; evidently they argued that readers would not have been “significantly misled” (as per Clause 1 of the PCC Code) by the reference to a charge - with all the implications this would give to a British readership regarding the seriousness and robustness of the allegations against Assange - because of the unique nature of the Swedish criminal system.
The PCC concurred with this, saying that the phrase “charges” would have accurately conveyed the idea that the Swedish prosecuting authorities were seeking to prosecute Assange on the allegations in question.
Key to this view was a ruling by the High Court regarding the question of the European Arrest Warrant, which considered that:
“Under the Swedish system, that decision [to charge the defendant] is taken at a late stage with the trial following quickly after… [in similar circumstances] in England and Wales the defendant would have been charged.”
In this sense, to say Assange has not been charged in Sweden might be seen to be equally misleading to a British readership - by implying the case against him is less robust than it is - as to suggest that he has been charged.
I’m not convinced by this argument. It seems a little perverse to favour a second-guessed assumption about the interpretive faculties of the British readership over the plain legal fact that Assange has not been charged. Moreover (as I believe Assange has himself argued), this unusual aspect of the Swedish system leaves itself open to institutional abuse, whereby the prosecuting authorities could make an unjustified request for the extradition of an individual without charging him (and thus without the pesky requirement of needing to provide robust evidence), on the basis that their system is at an equivalent stage of prosecution.
Clearly, the two systems cannot be simplistically equated like this on the basis of how long the bureaucratic procedure has been running - and as far as the media are concerned, it would at least be prudent to reserve the word “charged” for the formal legal action and refer to “accusations” or “allegations” in the context of the Swedish ‘intent to prosecute’.
However, it is clear that the arguments on both sides are a little more nuanced than they first appear - and Clause 1 is deliberately worded to provide some wiggle room for the PCC in such circumstances. The magazine is obliged to take care to avoid all inaccuracy - but, in the interests of avoiding pedantic complaints about factual minutiae - only significantly inaccurate or misleading statements are required to be corrected. In this case, whilst the NS statement is factually false, it was evidently deemed to not be significantly misleading.
Most people do not react favourably to hearing that this is how the PCC operates (although they would probably have a similar reaction to what actually goes on in courtrooms). The newspapers and magazines are free to learn how to play the system right up to edge of the line of acceptability, and standards of accuracy thus remain lower than many of us would like them.
These declining standards have many causes, though, and a more rigorous regime of regulation could never totally eliminate inaccuracy - it would, however, risk creating an environment where newspapers and magazines fear to publish copy that hasn’t been closely checked by a team of lawyers, where an industry on the rocks becomes even less capable of responding contemporaneously to unfolding stories, and where the front page of every newspaper consists exclusively of corrections of minor inaccuracies.
The argument in favour of the PCC’s style of ‘light-touch’ regulation is, ironically, an argument in favour of the free flow of information - a faith that the network of producers, readers and commenters can collectively establish the truth of the matter without needing information and comment to be filtered and hidden for fear of the consequences of its impact on the world. The parallel with Wikileaks is clear.
Of course, newspapers are dying on their arse because their business model is outdated and unworkable. As I have said before, though, there remains a need for solid, investigatory journalism, and - if the newspapers go under - we will need to reinvent the journalistic wheel in some kind of stable crowd-funded manner in order to keep the other powerful entities that attempt to run our lives in check.