The New Yorker is excerpting portions of Ronan Farrow’s new blockbuster, Catch and Kill. Farrow has reported the hell out of Hollywood’s sexual predators over the past year or more, including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Alan Dershowitz, and many others. In the portion published yesterday, Farrow recounts his and Rose McGowan’s interactions with Israeli spies hired by Harvey Weinstein to elicit information from his victims. On the recommendation of Ehud Barak, the Hollywood producer hired a corporate private investigation company called Black Cube. Its executives prepared a plan to spy on, expose and sabotage the claims by the victims Weinstein deemed most damaging to him. To execute the plan, they followed a protocol they’d followed in countless previous corporate investigations. They would hire operatives with backgrounds in intelligence or dramatic arts to make contact with the targets, gain their trust and secure any relevant secrets or information they might have on the claims against Weinstein.
I reported here on one of Black Cube’s female agents, Stella Penn Pechanac, who Farrow also portrayed in his piece from yesterday. But Farrow introduced another, previously unknown company agent who intersected with my own past, Seth Freedman. This was how Farrow described Freedman’s role in the Weinstein escapade:
As part of its contract with Weinstein, the agency agreed to hire “an investigative journalist, as per the Client request,” who would conduct ten interviews a month, for four months, and who would be paid forty thousand dollars for the work. The agency would “promptly report to the Client the results of such interviews by the Journalist.” For the job, Black Cube had settled on Seth Freedman, an Englishman who had written for the Guardian.
At this point in reading Farrow’s piece I caught my breath in disbelief. This was the same Seth Freedman who had been a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Comment is Free, where I also published regularly for several years.
I first encountered his work in 2007, only a few years after I’d begun publishing this blog. In those days, there were relatively few progressive Jewish voices online and to meet a voice like Seth’s was refreshing and encouraging. At the time, I admired his work, including his brash, flamboyant writing style. It was good to feel you had, if not a brother in arms, at least a cousin.
I knew Freedman had served in the IDF, which made his liberal values all the more unusual. But soon I discovered his best friend, Alex Stein, who was a different type altogether. In 2008, I wrote a Comment is Free column about an official Israeli hasbara campaign to counteract the bad press Israel had earned in its 2008 Gaza invasion, Operation Cast Lead. Stein took an immediate dislike to it and before I knew it, Freedman himself attacked it–where else–but in his own CiF column.
Though I was relatively new to online journalism, I was pretty sure it was unusual for a writer to attack another writer in print, who was working for the same publication. I wrote to Freedman saying I’d previously thought we were allies and didn’t understand the criticism and why he had to do it publicly in the Guardian. Freedman’s response was vitriolic and hostile. It was the opposite of the witty, charming persona he adopted in his CiF pieces. He threatened me, tried to intimidate me, etc.
I was shocked and disturbed and brought his message to the attention of Georgina Henry, the kindly, compassionate then-editor of CiF (she died far too young in 2014). Georgina didn’t like her writers squabbling with each other. She didn’t want to take sides in the dispute, but made clear to us both that this sort of thing just wasn’t to be done under her editorial auspices.
It may or not be a coincidence, but several months later, CiF stopped publishing my work. I noticed that they stopped publishing much of Seth’s work on Israel-Palestine around that time as well (though they continued publishing him on other subjects until his last work there in 2015). But I think it was all part of a general editorial retreat from controversial Israel-Palestine pieces. Thereafter, CiF tended only to publish work on the subject by either Israelis or Palestinians. It published very little by Diaspora Jews, whether liberal or conservative. A few right-wing contributors like Petra Marquardt Bigman, were also later dropped.
Battles among writers are legendary throughout recorded literary history. My altercation with Seth Freedman is but a minor skirmish in the genre. But I take enormous, perhaps perverse pleasure, to see how he turned out: a scoundrel selling his soul and his pen for $40,000 in an effort to smear women victimized by Hollywood sexual predators.
Farrow on Freedman
Let’s just say that Farrow thought a lot less of Seth’s writing style than I did circa 2009:
His articles had a rambling, jocular quality and were laced with frank references to a drug habit. In 2013, he wrote a novel called “Dead Cat Bounce,” about a coked-up London-based Jewish finance guy who runs away to join the Israel Defense Forces and gets swept up in a world of espionage and crime, all under the guise of being a writer for the Guardian. Freedman wrote the way a gangster in a Guy Ritchie movie talks: “The perfect mojito is a line of coke. See what I’m saying? Rum, lime, sugar, mint—yeah, yeah, yeah, but trust me, it’s the poor man’s Charlie. The scared man’s snow. The straight man’s chang.”
Here, Freedman attempts to elicit the price at which Rose Macgowan would drop her charges against Weinstein:
Freedman repeatedly pressed McGowan about whether she was talking to other reporters. “So,” he asked her at one point, “what would make you kind of call it quits?”
Here’s a bit more of that brash, vacuous Freedman style used for the ‘benefit’ of Farrow himself:
I also received calls from Freedman, who said that he was working “on a kind of collaborative piece with journalists from other papers on a very kind of soft piece about life in the film industry.” The description struck me as oddly vague. “We’ve come across some stuff doing our research that we really can’t use,” Freedman said. “I just wondered if what we have could be useful to you, basically.” He offered to connect me to someone he described as a high-profile source. I told Freedman that I was open to leads but couldn’t tell him anything about my reporting.
The capstone to this caper is that when Farrow finally published his New Yorker piece on Weinstein, the latter reached out to Freedman, who took a far different tack than their previous interactions. In fact, Freedman basically ratted out his former employer (after taking the cash, I’m sure):
Initially, he told me that his interest in Weinstein was solely journalistic. “I got tipped off in about November last year that something was gonna happen, and people were looking into a story about Harvey Weinstein,” he said. As we talked, he revealed more details about the “people” who had tipped him off. At first, Freedman referred to this shadowy group as “them.” Then he called them “we.” He explained, “We thought this was . . . the normal kind of business dispute you have with Oligarch 1 against Oligarch 2, the equivalent in Hollywood.”
I struggled to make sense of what he was saying. Freedman told me that, when the focus of his work turned to McGowan and other women, he began to grow uncomfortable. “It turned out that it was actually about sexual assault,” he said. “We pulled back and we said there’s no way we’re getting involved with this. How do we extricate ourselves? Because he’s hired us.”
I tried to guess who Freedman might have been working for, who Weinstein could have hired. “Are we talking about private investigators?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, cautiously. “I was in the Israeli Army,” he continued. “I know a lot of people involved in Israeli intelligence. That should be enough to give you a guide to who they are without me telling you who they are.”
I pressed him one more time. “Can you name any of the individuals in this group or the name of the group?”
Finally, he said, “They’re called Black Cube.”
For a guy who served in the IDF and claimed to know “a lot of people involved in Israeli intelligence,” he violated the first rule: don’t rat out your colleagues to the first journalist who comes along. So Seth Freedman is a fraud. He was a little less of a fraud back in 2009, when I last had contact with him. But he was a fraud even then. Seems to me that the Guardian has some major egg on its face for publishing hundreds of his pieces over the years, without having the faintest idea who and what he was. Not surprisingly, Freedman has deactivated his Twitter account.
Oh and by the way, the Guardian never paid me for the last two pieces I wrote for CiF. Nothing like stiffing your writers to make for a sterling reputation.