CNN has issued an apology after one of its on-air pundit called Julian Assange a Pedophile. Wikileaks threatened to sue for what would be clear defamation if untrue. However, that might not be the end of possible litigation. Another guest appears to have made the same allegation and the first pundit, Philip Mudd, a former CIA agent and CNN counterterrorism analyst, could still be sued in his own right.
Mudd stated on CNN “I think there’s an effort to protect WikiLeaks from a pedophile who lives in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.” The statement has been part of an all out campaign against Assange. Many powerful people in Washington still deeply resent the role of Wikileaks in exposing secret surveillance. However, many are more angry at the disclosure of the dishonestly and duplicity of the Washington elite.
Mudd was not the only one suggesting that Assange is a pedophile. Mike Rogers, a CNN national security commentator appeared on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” and said that Trump was wrong to support a recent account of Assange on the Russian hacking allegations. He added that
[Trump needs] someone to explain to him who Julian Assange is . . . I think if he knew all of the details — this person is wanted for rape of a minor. He is hiding in the basement of an embassy because he is a fugitive from justice, number one. Number two, he has released information harmful to the United States that I do believe jeopardize soldiers in the field.
Assange is accused of rape in Sweden after having sex with two adult women in 2010. Even for an individual accused (but not convicted of) rape, such an allegation is clearly defamatory if untrue. The common law has long treated some types of states as raising per se claims where special damages or proof are unnecessary. These include 1. criminal offenses; 2. loathsome diseases; 3. matters incompatible with business, trade, profession, or office; and 4. Serious sexual misconduct. Pedophilia would clearly fall into such categories which are the basis for slander per se actions. This would be a libel action since, while spoken, television broadcasts are treated as libel with special damages do not need to be proven.
Potential tort liability may have influenced the decision of CNN in issuing its apology:
“An analyst on our air earlier today asserted that Julian Assange was a pedophile, and regrets saying it. In fact, CNN has no evidence to support that assertion.”
Of course, any defamation action would be complicated by the fact that Assange cannot leave the embassy in London due to the threat of arrest and deportation. However, there remains statements on CNN that could still sustain a legal action if Wikileaks and Assange are willing to not just litigate but do through what would be a curious discovery process.