I just assumed they didn’t know, because the alternative — a credible news organization publishing a long-time contributor, but giving him a different name and nationality — did not make much sense. I assumed, then, that openDemocracy had been fooled; that when John Perry, a British man, got himself published as “Charles Redvers,” a Canadian, it had been through trickery. Believing this, I told them what I had found: that Perry had been going around telling other publications that he was Mr. “Redvers,” trumpeting his byline at openDemocracy and using the fake identity to circulate a false confession, recorded in a prison, from a Nicaraguan woman who told me she had been tortured.
An editor said “thanks” and then ignored all subsequent communication (questions like: Are you planning to do something about it?). But admitting mistakes is hard, I reminded by wounded ego, and it is entirely possible they think it is I whom is the crank. So I went ahead and published my investigation at The Daily Beast, confident that, once in the public domain, openDemocracy would no longer be able to ignore the fact they had published a man who is not real.
But that is what they did. Only after tagging an editor on Twitter, weeks later, was there the first bit of transparency: it was an inside job. According to social media chief Sunny Hundal, an editor at openDemocracy had published the story from the “Redvers,” ostensibly a Canuck in the Nicaraguan city of Leon, knowing that it was John Perry, a Brit in the city of Masaya — a fact that openDemocracy itself still does not acknowledge on its website.
After some more prodding, openDemocracy now asserts that Charles Redvers is “a pseudonym,” of whom they do not say, despite it having been reported. They note the privilege of anonymity is occasionally extended “when there are legitimate security concerns,” a belated disclaimer not to be found, obviously, on any of the Sandinista-run websites that republished the piece.
A couple things jump out here, the first of them perverse: John Perry is not a dissident, but rather a partisan of a Nicaraguan government that has been found responsible, by human rights organizations and the United Nations, of the vast majority of the violence the once-tranquil Central American nation has seen since anti-government protests began in April. He was using his platform, as Redvers, at openDemocracy, to argue that Nicaraguan security forces were literally incapable of torture (and that the opposition was funded by the same arms of the U.S. government as openDemocracy itself); he then used the identity, and the credibility of openDemocracy, to spread a video of a tortured student activist, this time at the far less credible Grayzone website.
The other thing is that openDemocracy did not actually grant anonymity, in this case. Rather, it lied to its readers: it said a man they knew was somebody else, from somewhere else, living somewhere else. At that point, Redvers is not a pseudonym, but a deception — one coauthored by an editor who had, as all journalists have, a duty to not knowingly lie to their audience.
“This looks like a serious issue to me,” Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted on Twitter. “I love openDemocracy, and want to see its excellent standards upheld. So it seems important that the issue is resolved in favour of transparency asap.”
Mary Fitzgerald, editor in chief of openDemocracy, tells me the editor responsible for this decision has been informed that they screwed up — that the use of a fake name must always be noted. But we already know who “Redvers” is, and that this was a fraudulent identity, not just a pen name, however welcome the acknowledgement that no one exists with that name (at least no one with strong opinions about Daniel Ortega). What we don’t know is why anyone at openDemocracy considered it ethical to cosign and publish claims that were known at the time to be false.
Ethical lapses happen, and one like this does not damn openDemocracy forever. But it owes its readers more. Deception requires an explanation, not just an asterisk and a note where one should have been before. Charles Redvers, which is to say, John Perry, exploited the credibility of openDemocracy to lend legitimacy to his manufactured identity and the torture-confession video he laundered on behalf of the Ortega government. Both he and his editor should come clean.
Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic.