Stephen Glover: Assange may yet come to hurt The Guardian

Media Studies: The Guardian may not regret getting into bed with this seemingly awful man, but it certainly has no intention of being caught lingering there

Monday 14 February 2011 01:00

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is threatening to sue The Guardian for libel over claims in a book just published by the newspaper. He is believed to be upset by the suggestion that he initially refused to remove the names of local Afghan informants mentioned in Afghan war logs, allegedly saying they would "deserve it" if they were killed as a result of the leaks.

The Guardian was Mr Assange's main newspaper collaborator, and the prime mover in the publication of WikiLeaks documents. The New York Times, Der Spiegel and others joined the caravan later. At first, The Guardian's Nick Davies thought him "perfectly easy to deal with" when they met in Brussels in June 2010, but the impression was soon dispelled. The Australian, we learn, proved to be unpredictable, difficult and unreliable. A month after their meeting, Mr Davies fell out with him when, without warning, he gave Channel 4 the entire Afghan database.

The newspaper's book, Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, does not offer a flattering portrait of its partner. In November 2010, Mr Assange threatened to sue The Guardian when it proposed to go ahead with publication of logs before he was ready. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, has written his own account, also often critical of Mr Assange. Mr Keller quotes the verdict of a senior reporter, whom he had despatched to London, that the WikiLeaks founder resembled "a bag lady walking in off the street" who "smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days".

I doubt that the roughest "red-top" tabloid would write about a once-valued source in the way The Guardian and The New York Times have done about Mr Assange. Setting aside the descriptions of his sometimes bizarre behaviour and toilette, as well as his allegedly Neanderthal treatment of women, the book makes the serious charge that he did not care if Afghan informants were put at risk from reprisals. We are left with the impression of an unpleasant man.

And yet neither The Guardian nor The New York Times appears to regret the publication of the logs. The book represents that as a journalistic triumph. It strives to distinguish between the value of the message and the nature of the messenger. Several of the newspaper's senior journalists were shocked by Mr Assange's conduct. Beyond that, they know he faces extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges which, should they ever be examined in court, may show him in an even darker light.

Last week we had something of a foretaste during an extradition hearing at Belmarsh magistrates' court in London. Mr Assange's lawyer, the supposedly right-on Geoffrey Robertson, made this extraordinary statement: "In so far as Mr Assange held her ['Miss A's'] arms and there was a forceful spreading of her legs, there's no allegation that this was without her consent... Sexual encounters have their ups and downs." And this is supposed to be the case for the defence!

Mr Assange divides the Left. He appals many women. Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy is an attempt by The Guardian to separate the message from the messenger. It may succeed, but probably not completely. If Mr Assange should end up in a Swedish jail, on sex charges rather than because he has infuriated the US government, the reputation of WikiLeaks, and potentially that of its newspaper collaborators, is likely to suffer.

This may be unfair – after all, Mr Assange did not write the leaked blogs – but it is surely inevitable. The Guardian may not regret getting into bed with this seemingly awful man, but it certainly has no intention of being caught lingering there.

Has Liz passed James in the pecking order?

Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp is on the verge of buying Shine Productions, a company set up by his daughter Elisabeth, in a deal said to be worth up to £400m. If this figure is correct, it is enormously generous, since Shine made a profit of only £5.5m on a turnover of £257m in 2009.

Should the deal go through, Elisabeth Murdoch would probably sit on the board of NewsCorp. There is also speculation that she may be being lined up by her father to take over from her brother James, chairman and chief executive of News Corp (Europe and Asia) which includes the British newspapers. Along with his sidekick, Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch has failed to shut down the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Indeed, it has escalated following his sanctioning of large compensation payments to several victims.

Might Elisabeth be a safer pair of hands, and a more suitable heir to Rupert Murdoch? Though she has never worked directly for her father, she has arguably shown more entrepreneurial vigour than her brother in creating a company now on the block for £400m. But if he is going to make a change in the succession, Rupert had better get on with it, since he is 80 next month.

No forgiveness in Wogan's world

Richard Ingrams, the editor of The Oldie, is a genius at publicity. His magazine's decision to make the Duke of Edinburgh "Consort of the Year" earned it a plug lasting several minutes on last Thursday's 10 O'Clock News on BBC1. However, Sir Terry Wogan, who handed out the various Oldie awards at a lunch at Simpson's restaurant in London, was rather graceless when it came to Prince Philip, who could not be there.

The 90-year-old Prince had written an unpompous and witty letter, bemoaning that "bits are beginning to fall off the ancient frame". Sir Terry made somewhat uncharitable remarks about this and other aspects of the letter. Might this be because he nurses an ancient resentment against the Prince?

The two men once rubbed each up the wrong way during a television interview. Prince Philip also said that the difference between Wogan and the M1 motorway was that you could turn off the motorway.

Sir Terry may appear genial, but he never forgets.

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