Gay Panic, Poe’s Law, and the Strange Cult of Julian Assange

— How my corrections story about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ended up on a bunch of fringe conspiracy websites

I recently blogged about The Sun, a popular British tabloid newspaper owned by Aussie media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

In March, the paper falsely reported that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was accused of raping two men during a 2010 visit to Sweden.

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On my request, the paper corrected the error and added this note to the enclosing article: “A previous version of this story said that Assange had sex with two men who later accused him of rape. In actual fact they were women. The story was corrected on 10th March.”

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Shortly after the correction was published, the article was heavily revised and the original reporter’s name replaced with the name “Eileen Weybridge.”

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However, when I called the Sun’s personnel department I was told they had no records of anyone with that name.

After failing to get answers from the editor who made the correction, in May I blogged the story with the sub-heading, “Did The Sun newspaper create a fake reporter?” which I then sent to Assange with a request for comment.

Although Assange didn’t respond directly, he tweeted this…

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…after which the story was picked up by the libertarian-leaning Free Thought Project and shared by a number of fringe conspiracy sites including that of British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who claims that the Queen is a shape-shifting lizard.

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One YouTuber, speculating about the Sun’s initial reporting error, said he believed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had planted the male rape claim to smear Assange.

Ironically, in March I’d joked that British authorities had planted the false claim to coax Assange out of self-imposed exile because if he were convicted of raping two women it would end any rumours about his sexuality.

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The Takeaway

1. Fake bylines are a bad idea.
2. A simple corrections request can get very 
complicated.
3. Assange’s fanbase includes vocal conspiracy theorists.
4. Gay panic is still a thing.
5. Never underestimate Poe’s Law.*

To read more about how this strange story developed, click here, here, and here.

*Poe’s Law: An internet adage which states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it’s impossible to distinguish satire from the real thing.

Cod Fishing Part II

“I love journalism” – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange responds to botched Sun newspaper profile

On Wednesday, I asked if The Sun created a fake reporter to byline a story which falsely claimed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had sexually assaulted two men.

Yesterday, Assange tweeted my blog post about the story:

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He immediately followed-up with this tweet:

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The Sun on Julian Assange – Fake News or Honest Mistake?

The Sun newspaper retracts claim Julian Assange allegedly sexually assaulted two men – but not before WikiLeaks Task Force cries “fake news”

Earlier this month, The Sun newspaper published “Who is Julian Assange, why does Pamela Anderson visit him in the Ecuadorian embassy and what is Wikileaks?” about exiled Aussie journalist and founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, who in 2010 was accused of sexually assaulting two women during a visit to Sweden.

The March 8, 2017 article, by reporter Holly Christodoulou, incorrectly stated that Assange “was in Sweden in August 2010 to speak at a conference when he met two men and had sex with them.”

Via the Wayback Machine:

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The WikiLeaks Task Force, an official WikiLeaks Twitter account set up in October 2016 to “correct misinformation” about its namesake organisation, called the article “#FakeNews” – suggesting that WikiLeaks believes The Sun intentionally fabricated the assertion that Assange allegedly sexually assaulted two men.

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On my request, The Sun immediately corrected the error, and today added this correction notice to the bottom of the article: “A previous version of this story said that Assange had sex with two men who later accused him of rape. In actual fact they were women. The story was corrected on 10th March.”

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In my follow-up e-mail to The Sun, I asked about WikiLeaks’ fake news claim.

A Sun spokesperson said: This was an honest editorial mistake that we corrected as soon as it had been flagged, and added a note at the bottom of the article reflecting that change. This error was absolutely not deliberate – as evidenced by older articles on the Sun website about Mr Assange stating clearly the rape claimants were women.”

I’ve reached out to Assange for comment.

Preaching to the Press

Is the British press unintentionally aiding efforts to implement state-backed press regulation?

Last October, IMPRESS became the first Royal Charter-backed press regulator in Britain after its application was approved by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

The decision to approve IMPRESS has proven controversial with the British press, with speculation about its motives and sources of funding.

What the press thinks of IMPRESS (source)

One particularly controversial area of concern is the involvement of motor racing tycoon Max Mosley, son of notorious wartime fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.

British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (source)

In 2008, the younger Mosley – who currently funds IMPRESS via two charitieswon a court case against disgraced British tabloid the News of the World (now defunct) after it reported about his participation in what it termed a “sick Nazi orgy” with prostitutes.

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Sleazy 2008 report by News of the World (source)

Critics claim Mosley has a vendetta against the popular press, and is bankrolling IMPRESS using his father’s money to serve a personal agenda – accusations he has repeatedly denied, albeit unconvincingly.

Another primary area of concern is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, under which publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could soon face “exemplary” damages – for instance having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases, regardless of who wins.

Critics argue Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

These are fair and principled criticisms, and the British press is right to be concerned that state-backed regulation presents a threat to freedom of the press. However, critics would be wise to listen to and acknowledge pro-regulation arguments – if not to reconcile their aims with those of Leveson, then to save their own neck.

Lord Justice Leveson (source)

Take for example The Sun, one of several British tabloids to come under close scrutiny during the 2011 Leveson Inquiry. A fierce opponent of state-backed press regulation, it casually dismisses pro-regulation campaigners like Hacked Off as “leftie plotters.”

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The Sun’s gratuitous “leftie plotters” headline (source)

Are supporters of Leveson likely to find this sort of language persuasive? Or is The Sun merely preaching to the converted?

Another recent example, by way of the Daily Telegraph, perfectly illustrates the way in which the British press is carelessly sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As reported on this blog, last month the Telegraph published a sensationalist article about Steve McNought, whose Bristol-based publishing company Arkbound was recently approved by IMPRESS.

The January 21, 2017 article, “Armed robber turned publisher wins approval from state-approved Press regulator funded by Max Mosley” by the Sunday Telegraph’s chief reporter Robert Mendick, focused on McNought’s criminal past, namely a series of armed robberies he committed in 2007-08 for which he received a 12-year prison sentence.

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The Telegraph’s January 21, 2017 article (source)

The details of McNought’s US crime spree would make for a compelling episode of True Crimes, but that’s not what the Telegraph intended; as McNought told me in a comment on this blog, the article was a clear attempt to undermine Impress, using me as a tool to do so, in the most nasty and underhand way.”

In other words, the Telegraph fulfilled the worst expectations of its critics, betraying the principles of ethical journalism – if not the “full spirit” of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) code of practice to which it supposedly subscribes. To boot, McNought says he is considering legal action against the Telegraph for allegedly falsely reporting about his crimes and infringing his privacy.

The “draconian” Section 40 is presently awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. Question: Is the British press willing to risk its hard-won freedoms for the sake of a few cheap shots at its political opponents?

Let’s hope not.

See also: “Crime and Regulation,” my January 24, 2017 item re: Steve McNought’s full response to the Telegraph’s article about his criminal past.

And: “The Case for Regulation,” my October 31, 2016 item re: Members of IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press.”

And: “UnIMPRESSed,” my October 27, 2016 item re: Two publications are no longer applying to join IMPRESS – with another on the fence.