It was the Media, Led by the Guardian, that Kept Julian Assange behind Bars

The media’s villainy will soon be erased because it writes the script telling us what’s going on in the world

It is only right that we all take a moment to celebrate the victory of Julian Assange’s release from 14 years of detention, in varying forms, to be united, finally, with his wife and children – two boys who have been denied the chance to ever properly know their father.

His last five years were spent in Belmarsh high-security prison as the United States sought to extradite him to face a 175-year jail sentence for publishing details of its state crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For seven years before that he was confined to a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, after Quito awarded him political asylum to evade the clutches of a law-breaking US empire determined to make an example of him.

His seizure by UK police from the embassy on Washington’s behalf in 2019, after a more US-aligned government came to power in Ecuador, proved how clearly misguided, or malicious, had been those who accused him of “evading justice”.

Everything Assange had warned the US wanted to do to him was proved correct over the next five years, as he languished in Belmarsh entirely cut off from the outside world.

No one in our political or media class appeared to notice, or could afford to admit, that events were playing out exactly as the founder of Wikileaks had for so many years predicted they would – and for which he was, at the time, so roundly ridiculed.

Nor was that same political-media class prepared to factor in other vital context showing that the US was not trying to enforce some kind of legal process, but that the extradition case against Assange was entirely about wreaking vengeance – and making an example of the Wikileaks founder to deter others from following him in shedding light on US state crimes.

That included revelations that, true to form, the CIA, which was exposed as a rogue foreign intelligence agency in 250,000 embassy cables published by Wikileaks in 2010, had variously plotted to assassinate him and kidnap him off the streets of London.

Other evidence came to light that the CIA had been carrying out extensive spying operations on the embassy, recording Assange’s every move, including his meetings with his doctors and lawyers.

That fact alone should have seen the US case thrown out by the British courts. But the UK judiciary was looking over its shoulder, towards Washington, far more than it was abiding by its own statute books.

Media no watchdog

Western governments, politicians, the judiciary, and the media all failed Assange. Or rather, they did what they are actually there to do: keep the rabble – that is, you and me – from knowing what they are really up to.

Their job is to build narratives suggesting that they know best, that we must trust them, that their crimes, such as those they are supporting right now in Gaza, are actually not what they look like, but are, in fact, efforts in very difficult circumstances to uphold the moral order, to protect civilisation.

For this reason, there is a special need to identify the critical role played by the media in keeping Assange locked up for so long.

The truth is, with a properly adversarial media playing the role it declares for itself, as a watchdog on power, Assange could never have been disappeared for so long. He would have been freed years ago. It was the media that kept him behind bars.

The establishment media acted as a willing tool in the demonising narrative the US and British governments carefully crafted against Assange.

Even now, as he is reunited with his family, the BBC and others are peddling the same long-discredited lies.

Those include the constantly repeated claim by journalists that he faced “rape charges” in Sweden that were finally withdrawn. Here is the BBC making this error once again in its reporting this week.

In fact, Assange never faced more than a “preliminary investigation”, one the Swedish prosecutors repeatedly dropped for lack of evidence. The investigation, we now know, was revived and sustained for so long not because of Sweden but chiefly because the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, then led by Sir Keir Starmer (now the leader of the Labour party), insisted on it dragging on.

Starmer made repeated trips to Washington during this period, when the US was trying to find a pretext to lock Assange away for political crimes, not sexual ones. But as happened so often in the Assange case, all the records of those meetings were destroyed by the British authorities.

The media’s other favourite deception – still being promoted – is the claim that Wikileaks’ releases put US informants in danger.

That is utter nonsense, as any journalist who has even cursorily studied the background to the case knows.

More than a decade ago, the Pentagon set up a review to identify any US agents killed or harmed as a result of the leaks. They did so precisely to help soften up public opinion against Assange.

And yet a team of 120 counter-intelligence officers could not find a single such case, as the head of the team, Brigadier-General Robert Carr, conceded in court in 2013.

Despite having a newsroom stuffed with hundreds of correspondents, including those claiming to specialise in defence, security and disinformation, the BBC still cannot get this basic fact about the case right.

That’s not an accident. It’s what happens when journalists allow themselves to be spoon-fed information from those they are supposedly watching over. That is what happens when journalists and intelligence officials live in a permanent, incestuous relationship.

Character assassination

But it is not just these glaring reporting failures that kept Assange confined to his small cell in Belmarsh. It was that the entire media acted in concert in his character assassination, making it not only acceptable but respectable to hate him.

It was impossible to post on social media about the Assange case without dozens of interlocutors popping up to tell you how deeply unpleasant he was, how much of a narcissist, how he had abused his cat or smeared his walls in the embassy with faeces. None of these individuals, of course, had ever met him.

It also never occurred to such people that, even were all of this true, it would still not have excused stripping Assange of his basic legal rights, as all too clearly happened. And even more so, it could not possibly justify eroding the public-interest duty of journalists to expose state crimes.

What was ultimately at stake in the protracted extradition hearings was the US government’s determination to equate investigative national-security journalism with “espionage”. Whether Assange was a narcissist had precisely no bearing on that matter.

Why were so many people persuaded Assange’s supposed character flaws were crucially important to the case? Because the establishment media – our supposed arbiters of truth – were agreed on the matter.

The smears might not have stuck so well had they been thrown only by the rightwing tabloids. But life was breathed into these claims from their endless repetition by journalists supposedly on the other side of the aisle, particularly at the Guardian.

Liberals and left-wingers were exposed to a steady flow of articles and tweets belittling Assange and his desperate, lonely struggle against the world’s sole superpower to stop him being locked away for the rest of his life for doing journalism.

The Guardian – which had benefited by initially allying with Wikileaks in publishing its revelations – showed him precisely zero solidarity when the US establishment came knocking, determined to destroy the Wikileaks platform, and its founder, for making those revelations possible.

For the record, so we do not forget, these are a few examples of how the Guardian made him – and not the law-breaking US security state – the villain.

Marina Hyde in the Guardian in February 2016 – four years into his captivity in the embassy – casually dismissed as “gullible” the concerns of a United Nations panel of world-renowned legal experts that Assange was being “arbitrarily detained” because Washington had refused to issue guarantees that it would not seek his extradition for political crimes:

BBC legal affairs correspondent Joshua Rozenberg was given space in the Guardian on the same day to get it so wrong in claiming Assange was simply “hiding away” in the embassy, under no threat of extradition (Note: Though his analytic grasp of the case has proven feeble, the BBC allowed him to opine further this week on the Assange case).

Two years later, the Guardian was still peddling the same line that, despite the UK spending many millions ringing the embassy with police officers to prevent Assange from “fleeing justice”, it was only “pride” that kept him detained in the embassy.

Or how about this one from Hadley Freeman, published by the Guardian in 2019, just as Assange was being disappeared for the next five years into the nearest Britain has to a gulag, on the “intense happiness” she presumed the embassy’s cleaning staff must be feeling.

Anyone who didn’t understand quite how personally hostile so many Guardian writers were to Assange needs to examine their tweets, where they felt freer to take the gloves off. Hyde described him as “possibly even the biggest arsehole in Knightsbridge”, while Suzanne Moore said he was “the most massive turd.”

The constant demeaning of Assange and the sneering at his plight was not confined to the Guardian’s opinion pages. The paper even colluded in a false report – presumably supplied by the intelligence services, but easily disproved – designed to antagonise the paper’s readers by smearing him as a stooge of Donald Trump and the Russians.

This notorious news hoax – falsely claiming that in 2018 Assange repeatedly met with a Trump aide and “unnamed Russians”, unrecorded by any of the dozens of CCTV cameras surveilling every approach to the embassy – is still on the Guardian’s website.

This campaign of demonisation smoothed the path to Assange being dragged by British police out of the embassy in early 2019.

It also, helpfully, kept the Guardian out of the spotlight. For it was errors made by the newspaper, not Assange, that led to the supposed “crime” at the heart of the US extradition case – that Wikileaks had hurriedly released a cache of files unredacted – as I have explained in detail before.

Too little too late

The establishment media that collaborated with Assange 14 years ago in publishing the revelations of US and UK state crimes only began to tentatively change its tune in late 2022 – more than a decade too late.

That was when five of his former media partners issued a joint letter to the Biden administration saying that it should “end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets”.

But even as he was released this week, the BBC was still continuing the drip-drip of character assassination.

A proper BBC headline, were it not simply a stenographer for the British government, might read: “Tony Blair: Multi-millionaire or war criminal?”

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.