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December 31, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:45am

Guardian article detailing alleged Julian Assange ‘escape plot’ to Russia was misleading, internal panel rules

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Guardian’s internal complaints review panel has overruled both its readers’ editor and managing editor in finding a story detailing an alleged “plot” to “smuggle” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange into Moscow from London’s Ecuadorian embassy was misleading.

The story, published online and on page 3 of the newspaper in September 2018, claimed Russian diplomats had held talks with people close to Assange (pictured) the previous year to decide whether they could help him leave the UK.

The article, which had the headline “Revealed: Russia’s secret plan to help Julian Assange escape from UK”, used language such as “plot”, “secret”, and “flee”.

Fidel Narvaez, former London counsel for Ecuador, complained that the article contained a number of inaccuracies, including its central allegation.

He said a reference to himself in the article as a “close confidante” of Assange who “served as a point of contact with Moscow” was false and defamatory, even though his full denial appeared in the next paragraph.

Guardian readers’ editor Paul Chadwick initially decided the article did not need any amendment, telling Narvaez he was satisfied both as to its factual accuracy and that the journalists had “good grounds to be confident about their sources”.

He also told Narvaez the allegation relating to him would be read in conjunction with his denial, and said he believed the claim Narvaez “served as a point of contact with Moscow” was not inaccurate on the balance of probabilities.

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Narvaez referred the complaint to the Guardian’s review panel, which found “several matters of substance” had not been fully considered by the readers’ editor and that it should therefore be looked at afresh by the managing editor.

The managing editor pointed to publicly available indications of a plan to remove Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London to Moscow by appointing him to positions that could grant him diplomatic immunity.

She found it was “reasonable to assert” both that Narvaez acted as a point of contact with Moscow and that there was Russian involvement or a Russian link with Assange.

Narvaez continued to pursue the complaint and, in a decision published last week, the review panel ruled the Guardian had “not taken care not to publish misleading or distorted information” as required under Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct.

The Guardian and Observer still use the PCC’s code to deal with complaints internally after rejecting the system of press regulation used by its successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The Financial Times, Evening Standard and the Independent have also declined to sign up to IPSO.

In its decision, the review panel said that the headline reference to a Russian “secret plot to smuggle” and the use of language like “plot and “escape” was “overblown” and created an “unfortunate ambiguity for readers”.

“The overall impression of the article is misleading in that it tends to suggest that Russia instigated or devised a plan to do something underhand or illicit by removing Assange from the embassy,” it went on.

The Guardian has since published a standalone clarification and added it as a footnote to the original story.

The panel said it was unable to rule on whether the article had defamed Narvaez, as this would go beyond the remit of the code.

The panel’s full decision, which was described by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger as an “impressive example of independent self-regulation”, can be read here.

Assange is currently in prison as he fights a US extradition order over allegations of conspiring to hack into a classified Pentagon computer.

Earlier in 2019 he was handed a 50-week jail sentence for skipping bail to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual offence allegations – since dropped – that he has always denied.

The Australian national lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years but was arrested by police in April after his asylum status was withdrawn by the South American country’s president.

Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

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