Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Media persecution of Assange and BBC News at Ten's repeated reporting 'errors'

As the incarceration and inhuman treatment of Julian Assange continues, it's important to remember that a crucial part of his persecution lies at the door of the media.

Assange has been relentlessly smeared and defamed across the so-called 'media spectrum', from the rabid slurs of the tabloid press to an even more mendacious campaign of vilification and ridicule by the Guardian.

Following an intensive investigation of the Assange case, UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer concluded that the conduct of leading states and much of the media amounted to "progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", and that Assange “showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture”.

Now, unjustly detained beyond his, now-served, heavy sentence for 'bail violation', Assange languishes in maximum-security Belmarsh jail, dangerously unwell, deprived of basic rights and facing the calamitous injustice of extradition to the US.  

Lamentably, very little of this state persecution of a world-renowned journalist is seen as worthy of serious, critical coverage. 

This was evident in the almost blanket media ignoring of a recent John Pilger and Roger Waters-led support Assange event outside the Home Office.

Assange's mental and physical deterioration was obvious for all to see during his latest pre-trial extradition hearings. 

Again, mirroring the magistrate's chilling indifference to Assange's condition, this event was almost completely ignored by the 'mainstream' media, most notably the BBC.  

As Nils Melzer has also stated:
"Media inform us about #Assange’s cat, skateboard and feces, but don't demand justice for crimes he exposed. This complacency with government misconduct is the real scandal, the proverbial elephant in the room, hiding behind a blinding spotlight that is constantly directed at him."
False media repetition of "rape charges"

One of the most relentless myths around this case, explicit and implicit, has been the notion of 'rape charges' against Julian Assange, all serving to stigmatize him in the public eye.

Again, the Guardian has been a leading player in perpetuating this untruth.

Yet, as any credible observer or news organisation should know, there has never been any such charges issued against Assange.

This is made explicitly clear in a Defend Wikileaks document listing such falsehoods, and warning journalists of their responsibility not to state or reproduce them:
Mr. Assange's current isolation, ongoing proceedings and pending extradition also increases the legal and ethical burden on journalists, publishers and others to get their facts straight. Consequently journalists and publishers have a clear responsibility to carefully fact-check from primary sources and to consult the following list of defamations to ensure they do not spread and have not spread falsehoods about WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. The purpose of this list is to aid the honest and accurate and to put the dishonest and inaccurate on notice.
Given its claims to being a 'leading' and 'impartial' news organisation, some might expect from the BBC a more careful and balanced reporting of the case.

But the BBC has also failed in its editorial and journalistic duty to provide accurate and honest information.

Repeated misrepresentations by BBC News at Ten

As noted by Media Lens, on the evening of Assange's forced removal from the Ecuadorian embassy and arrest (11 April 2019), BBC News at Ten presenter Huw Edwards stated:
'[Assange] took refuge originally to avoid extradition to Sweden over charges of sexual assault; charges that have since been dropped.'
After being challenged by Media Lens, a BBC online article was updated, replacing the word "charges" with "allegations".

However, no correction was ever issued by BBC News at Ten.

Media Lens also remind us of the clear message issued by Defend Wikileaks:
'It is false and defamatory to suggest that Julian Assange is, or has ever been, charged with an offence by the United Kingdom or Sweden.'
Yet, remarkably, News at Ten continued to present such false and defamatory statements.

On 13 May 2019, presenter Huw Edwards once again stated in a report piece on Assange:
"He’s always denied the charges".
How, one wonders, could a leading BBC editorial team and presenter persist in such an elementary 'mistake'?

Complaint to the BBC

The following complaint and ensuing correspondence offers some insights into the BBC's own lamentable standards and feeble mitigation.

Initial complaint to BBC
(13 May 2019)

In this news report [13 May 2019], presenter Huw Edwards stated with regard to the Julian Assange case: "He’s always denied the charges".

As the BBC should very well know, Assange has never been charged with anything by the Swedish authorities.

Why was this entirely false statement made by the BBC? Isn't it a clear dereliction of the BBC's proclaimed duty to provide clear and accurate information?

This statement has helped reinforce a very serious misconception around the Assange story.

Will the BBC be issuing an appropriate public correction on a forthcoming edition of News at Ten?

BBC response
(6 June 2019)

Dear Mr Hilley

Thank you for getting in touch about the BBC News at Ten broadcast 13 May, and please accept our apologies for the delay in our response.

We appreciate you feel it was inaccurate for Huw Edwards to say that Julian Assange 'has always denied the charges' against him.

We always aim for the highest standards of accuracy in our reporting, and are grateful you've taken the time to raise this with us. As you've said, a more accurate phrasing of this would be that Assange denies the 'allegations' rather than 'charges'.

Our online articles using this wording have been amended:

After considering your point further we have amended the articles in question (… and… and…)

We have also added correction notes at the bottom which outline these changes. Your complaint about the News at Ten has been shared with the programme's editors, as well as senior staff across BBC News.

We hope you’ll find these changes satisfactory and thank you once again for getting in touch.
Kind regards [..] BBC Complaints Team

My reply
(6 June 2019)

Dear [..]

Thanks for making these important online corrections. However, in full and fair redress to Mr Assange, and in the public interest, the same correction should be aired on News at Ten. I trust you can find a suitable opportunity to do so.

Kind regards
John Hilley

BBC response 
(22 July 2019)

Dear Mr Hilley,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us again. We are sorry to learn that you were not satisfied with our earlier response.

Firstly, we’re sorry about the delay in getting back to you. We know people appreciate a prompt response and unfortunately we’ve taken longer to reply than usual – please accept our apologies.We have spoken with the News at Ten team about your concerns. They would like to acknowledge that it was incorrect to use the word 'charges' in relation to the allegations against Julian Assange. They would like to apologise for this error, and we have also posted a correction to our Corrections and Clarifications webpage:

If you are still dissatisfied, you can contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process.

Details of the BBC complaints process are available at where you can read the BBC’s full complaints framework.

If you wish to contact the ECU please write to it directly within 20 working days of receiving this reply. Please explain to it why you believe there may have been a potential breach of standards or other significant issue for it to investigate. You can email, or write to: Executive Complaints Unit, BBC, Broadcast Centre, London W12 7TQ. Please include the case reference number we have provided in this reply.

Thank you again for contacting us.

Kind regards
BBC Complaints Team

Letter to Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) 
(28 July 2019)

Ref: CAS-5478202-SM56R0

Dear ECU

Following a (long-awaited) reply from the BBC Complaints Team regarding the above-referenced case, I wish to request a formal review of their findings.

As you will see from the response, News at Ten and the BBC have acknowledged their mistake in using the word "charges" in relation to Julian Assange's case. They have also apologised and listed the error at the BBC's Corrections and Clarifications page.

However, as was made clear in my second letter, fair and proper redress must include a full and formal statement by the BBC to that same effect on a forthcoming edition of News at Ten.

The BBC have a public duty to provide accurate and impartial information. In this instance, false and misleading information, in essence fake news, was conveyed to a wide viewership, seriously misrepresenting Mr Assange and affecting much of the public's understanding of this high-profile case.

It is surely wrong to believe that this major error can be redeemed via a statement in a corrections page which most of that same viewership will almost certainly never see.

One wonders how the BBC could have made such an elementary error, calling into question its claims to being a leading news organisation. Again, the significance of the word "charges", and its key impressions on viewers, cannot be underestimated. 

Indeed, this journalistic and editorial failure appears to be consistent with a more general antipathy in the BBC's coverage and presentation of Mr Assange. 

Thus, in addition to a formal statement on News at Ten, I am asking for an appropriate investigation into the competency and impartiality of the editorial team which 'researched' and produced this news script.   

I look forward to hearing from you.

John Hilley

Reply from Executive Complaints Unit 
(29 July 2019)

Dear Mr Hilley

Thank you for contacting the Executive Complaints Unit.

I’m writing to acknowledge receipt of your message and to let you know someone from the unit will be in touch with a further response within 20 working days of the date of your email, or 35 working days if your complaint is assessed as complex.

Yours sincerely
Alison Wilson
Executive Complaints Unit

Message to ECU
(30 September 2019)

Dear Alison Wilson

Please could you tell me when the ECU will deal with my complaint? My letter to the ECU was acknowledged in your message of 29 July, and, according to the ECU's own terms, should have been responded to within 20-35 days.

John Hilley

Reply from ECU
(22 October 2019)

Dear Mr Hilley

BBC News (10pm), BBC One, 13 May 2019

I’m sorry it has taken so much longer to reply to your complaint than we initially led you to expect.  I’m afraid it resulted from an administrative error on my part.  However, I’m now in a position to let you know the outcome of our investigation.  The outstanding issue of complaint is whether the inaccuracy, already acknowledged, in the use of the term “charges” requires further correction, your own view being that “fair and proper redress must include a full and formal statement by the BBC to that same effect on a forthcoming edition” of the programme.  Having considered the broadcast in the light of your points, I have to say I don’t agree.  

Immediately before using the term, Huw Edwards had introduced the report in question with the sentence “An investigation into rape allegations against the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is being re-opened by the authorities in Sweden”, so the subsequent reference to “charges”, while it might have introduced an element of confusion, was hardly likely to have materially misled viewers, either in relation to their understanding of the report that followed or their general understanding of Mr Assange’s position.  It’s the kind of slip which, ideally, would have been corrected within the broadcast itself, but which is not of such moment to require broadcast correction in a subsequent broadcast, and it seems to me that amending the related online article and putting the matter on record on the BBC Corrections and Clarifications website was ample for any issue of redress raised by the inaccuracy.  I therefore don’t believe I have grounds for upholding your complaint.

There’s no provision for further appeal within the BBC, but if you wish to pursue your concerns further it’s now open to you to ask the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to consider your complaint. You can find details of how to contact Ofcom and the procedures it will apply at Alternatively, you can write to Ofcom, Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA, or telephone either 0300 123 3333 or 020 7981 3040. Ofcom acknowledges all complaints received.

Yours sincerely
Fraser Steel
Head of the Executive Complaints Unit

Excusing the 'slip'

As anticipated, the high arbiters of BBC output were never likely to uphold this complaint. The ECU's excusing of BBC News at Ten rests on an evasive argument and paltry piece of mitigation. And, of course, there was no response to the specific request for any in-house check on how the BBC News at Ten editorial team ever came to produce and repeat the 'rape charges' misinformation.  

Still, the above correspondence helps show, at least, how readily our 'leading' state media agency accept and amplify the establishment narrative when it comes to official enemies and power-exposing whistleblowers. 

And, for the US/UK, they don't come any more threatening than Julian Assange.

The response has seen a state/media-directed smear campaign of open denigration, false inference and convenient omission. 

And the BBC's 'oversight' on News at Ten is only part of this compliant and power-serving narrative. 

Where is the full contextual story of Assange's time in Sweden, his co-operative dealings with the Swedish authorities, the unfolding plot against him, his legitimate fear of onward extradition, last resort to asylum, subsequent forms of punitive imprisonment and the looming prospect of enduring incarceration in a US jail? 

Where do we ever hear Assange being referred to as a political prisoner of conscience? 

As Assange's fate, indeed his very life, hangs in the balance, the unconscionable ignoring of his unjust and brutal treatment are a stain on the BBC, wider messenger media and all those complicit 'journalists' who have failed to protect and demand his liberty. 

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