Gavin MacFadyen, Defender of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange, Dies at 76

Mr. MacFadyen founded and led the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London. (Centre for Investigative Journalism)
Mr. MacFadyen founded and led the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London. (Centre for Investigative Journalism)

Gavin MacFadyen, an American investigative journalist who was a prominent advocate for members of his profession, for their sources and for Julian Assange, the embattled founder of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, died Oct. 22 at a hospital in London. He was 76.

His wife, Susan Benn, confirmed his death. The cause was lung cancer, according to an announcement by the London-based Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), which Mr. MacFadyen helped found and where he was director at the time of his death.

Mr. MacFadyen spent much of his professional life in England, where he established himself as a producer and director of documentaries that aired on outlets that included the BBC and Granada Television’s “World in Action,” a British investigative program that has been compared with the CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” In the United States, his work was seen on programs such as the PBS documentary series “Frontline.”

He traveled around the world for his reportage, according to CIJ, covering topics that included the neo-Nazi movement in Britain, organized crime in China, the diamond trade in Africa, electoral fraud in South America, arms trafficking in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation and environmental degradation. In situations of what he considered paramount public interest, he worked in disguise.

Mr. MacFadyen founded CIJ in 2003 as a training ground for reporters in his field. He also was credited with helping found the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an association of nonprofit organizations, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.

“Gavin created an environment where everybody was helping everybody else,” Mark Lee Hunter, a Paris-based investigative journalist, said in an interview.

Through his work, Mr. MacFadyen developed an intense concern for whistleblowers, the sources who may risk their jobs or safety to reveal to a reporter evidence of corporate, governmental or other wrongdoing.

“It’s a dangerous thing being a whistleblower,” Mr. MacFadyen said last year in a speech covered by the Cape Argus of South Africa. “Many lost their wives, children and often livelihood. They needed protection.”

In time, CIJ began offering legal and psychological support to whistleblowers. Through that work, Mr. MacFadyen met Assange, the Australian national who founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as a clearinghouse for leaked information.

The site attracted widespread attention after the publication in 2010 of tens of thousands of State and Defense Department documents leaked by Army analyst Chelsea Manning. Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence imposed in 2013 by a military judge.

More recently, WikiLeaks published a trove of hacked emails from the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Many investigative journalists, while supporting transparency and related principles, vigorously oppose Assange’s methods, arguing that he essentially dumps information into the public arena without adequate consideration of how the information was obtained or of potential privacy or security concerns.

In 2012, facing a rape allegation in Sweden and fearing extradition to the United States, Assange took up residence at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, where he remains today. Mr. MacFadyen helped organize a legal defense committee and at times spoke on his behalf. In 2012, he declared that while Assange’s embassy abode was “not quite the Hilton,” it was also true that “we have all had worse.”

Speaking to the London Observer, Mr. MacFadyen described Assange as an “inspirational figure” and “probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever worked with,” despite his “unusual amount of self-confidence.”

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