Julian Assange, anonymity and press freedom
Judge Vanessa Baraitser, currently presiding over Julian Assange’s extradition hearings, proposed on April 7thto remove reporting restrictions on the identity of a key witness in the case. The witness, known as ‘AA’ in court, is Assange’s partner: her identity was already known to the Court, the defence and the prosecution. ‘AA’ asked to remain anonymous to protect herself and the couple’s young children from intrusions by the media. Assange’s defence team cited Article 8 of the Human Rights Act which “protects your right to respect for your private life, your family life, your home and your correspondence (letters, telephone calls and emails, for example)”(1) The judge ruled that “the woman’s right to a private family life was outweighed by the need for open justice.” (2)
The defence team argued that, without such restrictions, ‘AA’ and her children risked ‘disproportionate’ interference with their private lives and stated it would lodge an appeal with the High Court. Until the outcome of the appeal the reporting restrictions would have remained in place.
However, on April 11th, Wikileaks released a recording of Assange’s partner, Stella Morris (3), presumably to pre-empt further press enquiry and intrusion.
Who was behind this move to force a reluctant young mother to come forward?
According to the Independent’s report of the hearing on the 7th April, Judge Baraitser’s ruling followed “a submission by the PA news agency via telephone conference to the court.” (4) So what is the “PA news agency” and why would a British judge listen to them?
This article, explaining the nature of the Press Association was written in the days following the April 7th hearing, but since the release of the interview with Stella Morris it was decided to publish the article with modifications to update it appropriately. The interview with Stella Morris is moving and courageous. Having spent years trying to protect her young family from media intrusion the cruel pressures of Baraitser and the Press Agency, and the real and present danger that Assange could die in prison have forced her to speak out.
The Press Association
The ‘PA news agency’ is the Press Association, which was rebranded last year as the PA Media Group Ltd.
A press agency is an “organisation that gathers, writes, and distributes news from around a nation or the world to newspapers, periodicals, radio and television broadcasters, government agencies, and other users.’ It supplies ‘news’ to its subscribers and “All the mass media depend upon the agencies for the bulk of the news, even including those few that have extensive news-gathering resources of their own.” (5)The Press Association is the national press agency for the UK and Ireland and contains “a diverse portfolio of specialist media companies spanning news & information, data, technology, marketing and communications.” (6)It was the source, in 2009, of 70% of all news stories in five ‘most prestigious Fleet Street titles”.(7)
It might therefore seem that the Press Association’s highly effective intervention in the Assange case was public-spirited and disinterested, concerned only keep the public fully informed.
In fact of course this was an intervention by an exceedingly powerful, well-connected and inter-connected business bloc, whose shareholders and directors have links with finance, government, industry and digital communication companies.
According to a document filed at Companies House four entities control about two thirds of the value of the shares of the PA Media Group Ltd. This dominance gives a few directors nominated by shareholders control over the main policies of the group and therefore over any decision to intervene in Assange’s case.
The four include the three major newspaper conglomerates in the UK: the Daily Mail Group (Daily Mail and General Holdings Ltd), the News International ‘Rupert Murdoch’ stable (News Corp UK and Ireland Ltd) and the Mirror group (MGL2 Ltd and Reach PLC). (8) The fourth company is UBMG Ltd, owned through a series of holding and management companies by Informa PLC whose brands “operate events and exhibitions, deliver intelligence-based products and data-driven services, convene communities in person and digitally and provide access to cutting-edge research for specialist customer communities worldwide.”(9) Informa PLC is owned, eventually, by Computershare Ltd (Australia), a company which acts as Informa’s ‘share registrar’. (10)
Smaller shareholders of PA Media Group Ltd include the Telegraph, the Guardian and various regional newspaper chains. One tiny shareholder is of big interest – A/C IGCLT Pershing Nominees Ltd. Tracing ownership through the various holding companies we arrive at the ultimate parent company the Bank of New York Mellon which acquired Pershing LLC, the second-largest trade clearinghouse in the US, in 2003. BNY Mellon is “by far the world’s largest custodian bank and asset servicing company, with $1.9 trillion in assets under management and $35.8 trillion in assets under custody as of the third quarter of 2019.”In 2012 it sold its Shareowner Services division to Computershare, the ultimate owner of Informa PLC. (11)
One of the conglomerates – News International – has controlled newspapers whose editors and reporters have been relentless, and at times acted outside of the law, in their prurient intrusion into the private lives of innocent people. Such activities have resulted in a number of high profile libel suits and criminal charges. Most well known is the News International hacking scandal when reporters working for News of the World were accused of phone hacking, police bribery and “exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories”. The hacking extended beyond the famous and celebrated to the family of a missing teenager, to the wives of serving British soldiers, and to victims of the 9/11 attacks. It has also included critics of mass media organisations. Allegations of phone hacking have also been made against The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. In April 2007 the actor High Grant sued Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) for publishing articles about his personal relationships whose “allegations and factual assertions are false”. (12)
Arrests, resignations and the short-term imprisonment of some News of the World reporters followed. In January 2007, two of these, Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, were found guilty of illegally intercepting phone messages from Clarence House and imprisoned for six months and four months respectively. At the main phone hacking trail in 2013-2014 GlennMulcaire pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for 12 months and ordered to undertake 200 hours community work. Rebekah Brooks, the editor of News of the World at the time one of the stories that involved illegal hacking took place, was acquitted of all charges. A further reporter, Andy Coulson, was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Between the two trials Glenn Mulcaire was employed for a period as a senior investigator for ‘Quest’ a ‘global advisory firm that enables private and public sector clients to respond to a range of security and integrity issues” which is chaired by Lord Stevens one-time Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.(13) This is a small indication of the links that exist between the worlds of news dissemination on the one hand and private and public intelligence-gathering and security on the other. As Roy Greenslade recently put it: “Most tabloid newspapers – or even newspapers in general – are playthings of MI5”. (14)
Ultimately the News International and other scandals and allegations prompted the 2011 Leveson Enquiry which, after one report, was dropped in 2018 by the then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock. And despite apologies, compensation payments and criminal investigations Rupert Murdoch, in a privately taped interview, was dismissive of the police investigation and of the allegations themselves. (15)
Do these attitudes still persist at News International? Is a body, like the Press Association which is dominated by organisations with a history of unwarranted, disproportionate and harmful intrusion into the private lives of ordinary people really to have influence over decisions relating to the anonymity of Julian Assange’s young family? Does a judge not have a responsibility to ensure such harassment is not inflicted on a young family?
The Press Association as a business bloc
The above account demonstrates that the likely outcome of revealing ‘AA’s identity at the hands of newspapers represented in the Press Association raised legitimate concerns for Assange’s defence team. It is also of concern that a powerful business interest can have such a decisive impact on court proceedings.
The non-executive member of the Board of Directors (non-executive members do not have operational or ‘executive’ roles in the company) are (16):
Geraldine Allinson. Chairs the KM Group which operates newspapers in Kent and Medway. KM and its recent buyer, Iliffe Media, are smaller shareholders of the Press Association. She is a former President of the Newspaper Society.
Rebekah Brooks. CEO of News UK, and former CEO of News International .
Paul Dacre. Chair and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, part of DMG Media, and one-time editor of the Daily Mail.
Dominic Fitzpatrick. Managing director of The Irish News Group, a smaller shareholder of PA Media.
Murdoch MacLennan. Non-executive Chair of PA Media and described as ‘a seasoned media executive’ with roles at the Telegraph Media Group, Mirror Group, Express Newspapers, Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail.
Jim Mullen. CEO of Reach PLC, formerly Trinity Mirror Group. His roles before that appointment included CEO of Ladbrokes Coral and director of digital strategy at News International.
Of the executive directors Clive Marshall was formerly CEO of Australian Associated Press, another press agency part owned by News International and which folded just recently. James Goode, is chief financial officer with previous experience at Lonrho a mining conglomerate, PWC and Ernst and Young accountancy firms.
Another tale of interlocking interests in the worlds of digital communications, media, finance and government is apparent on the Board of Informa PLC (17).
The Group Chief executive is Lord Stephen A. Carter CBE. He has held a variety of private sector executive roles in media and broadcasting, including as a President and Managing Director at Alcatel Lucent Inc which was merged with Nokia in 2016 to become Nokia Networks. Alcatel Lucent has business investments in Cloud technologies, IP networking and ultra-broadband access. For a short period it held a 20% stake in Thales the key player in the French defence industry. (18)
In the public sector Carter was the founding CEO of Ofcom (the UK telecoms regulator), and went on to become Chief of Strategy to Gordon Brown. He also served as Minister for Telecommunications and Media. He is also on the Board of United Utilities Group PLC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Other directors’ links include banking, Thomson Reuters, Rolls Royce, British Airways, Unilever and Serco. Mary McDowell has been Executive Vice-President of Nokia’s mobile phones unit. Gill Whitehead is currently Senior Director of Client Solutions and Analytics at Google. She has worked at the Bank of England, the BBC, Channel Four and is a non-executive director on the Board of Camelot, the UK National Lottery.
It is yet another example of the inhuman and arbitrary nature of the proceedings against Julian Assange that, while he is being tortured on behalf of one powerful entity – the United States of America – another powerful body could quite openly and unashamedly intervene in court proceedings in a way which would turn the screws still further.
Very few journalists have been prepared to defend Julian Assange while at the same time many have been eager to attack him. The analysis of PA Media shows the powerful influences at work in mainstream media. It explains how ‘press freedom’ has a very different meaning for those in the Establishment from that of Julian Assange, Wikileaks and some other non-mainstream journalists and bloggers. The ‘open justice’ that Baraitser refers to is likely to mean ‘open season’ by a prurient and ruthless gutter press on Assange’s partner and children. (19) Craig Murray recently described the court proceedings against Assange as a ‘theatre’ intended to show the power of the state and to cow opposition, to make us afraid: it is ‘an act of terror’.(20) Judge Baraitser could add to that the terror of media exposure for his family. It is to be hoped that the Stella Morris interview, in depriving the gutter press of a scoop, will limit the impact to some extent.
It is also the case that, considering newspapers as big business, the firms represented in the Press Association have an economic and financial interest in suppressing potential competitors like Wikileaks and outlets alternative to the mainstream media. Wikileaks has shown up the bankruptcy of today’s press ‘churnalism’ and the abandonment of investigative journalism. Meanwhile, as representative of entities whose content is influenced by the security services, the Press Association is too close to organisations whose activities could be exposed by Wikileaks.
Crucial to Judge Baraitser’s decision which could cause harm to Assange’s family (and therefore increase psychological pressure on Assange himself), was a direct intervention by PA Media Group Ltd. Yet that company is the very organization whose views should NOT have weighed with a judge on issues of anonymity.
3. https://consortiumnews.com/2020/04/12/assange-partner-speaks-out-after-threat-from-judge/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=14&v=LgK5ZqjvC5s&feature=emb_logo
6. https://pamediagroup.com/; The PA is not “a membership organisation as the name suggests. As we look to the future of the broader group, our new identity will unify the various PA-branded businesses and standalone companies offering a range of specialist media services.” https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/press-association-rebrands-as-pa-media-as-part-of-ongoing-digital-transformation/.
7. Nick Davies Flat Earth News, London, 2009; p.74
8. PA Media Group Ltd Confirmation Statement, filed 21/1/20 https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/00004197/filing-history.
10. https://www.informa.com/investors/shareholder-centre/registrar-and-share-dealing/ It has not proved possible to track ownership further given time constraints on putting this article onto the website.
13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Mulcaire; https://www.quest.co.uk/
14. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/five-reasons-why-we-don-t-have-free-and-independent-press-in-uk-and-what-we-can-do-about/; https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-03-11-how-the-uk-press-supports-the-british-military-and-intelligence-establishment/; Richard Keeble ‘Hacks and Spooks – Close Encounters of a Strange Kind: A Critical History of the Links between Mainstream Journalists and the Intelligence Services in the UK’; https://www.academia.edu/10766319/THE_MEDIA_AND_THE_SECRET_STATE
15. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-44051990; https://www.channel4.com/news/murdoch-rupert-tape-police-the-sun-journalists
17. https://www.informa.com/about-us/board-of-directors/This article does not include any details of the other three main shareholders in PA Media Group Ltd. However, these may appear soon and can be found either on their websites or at Companies House.
19. Ironically Judge Baraitser herself appears to have taken great steps to ensure her personal privacy is absolute: “the average proprietor of a rural car wash has left more evidence of their existence and life history on the internet than Vanessa Baraitser”. See: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/02/your-man-in-the-public-gallery-the-assange-hearing-day-3/; But see also: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/04/singalongavanessa/