Press freedom
‘If this happened in China, there’d be a shitstorm here’

‘If this happened in China, there’d be a shitstorm here’

Arrested Sun and News of the World journalists tell spiked about their ordeal.

‘This is the criminalisation of journalism’, a Sun journalist told me this week. And he should know, as one of at least 22 journalists from the top-selling UK tabloid who have been arrested over the past 18 months.

The three Metropolitan Police investigations into the press – Operation Weeting (phone hacking), Operation Elveden (alleged corrupt payments to public officials), and Operation Tuleta (alleged hacking of computers) - amount to the biggest investigation in British criminal history. According to the Press Gazette, the running total of all journalists arrested is at least 59. None of them has yet been convicted: 14 have been charged, eight cleared, and 37 still remain on police bail, often left in limbo for more than a year. That is even before you start counting the police officers, public officials and others scooped up in the course of the three-pronged offensive.

Speaking to arrested journalists, sometimes anonymously, they tell the same story: of being arrested in dawn raids on their homes as if they were serious criminals; of being condemned from all sides and publicly judged as guilty before they have even been charged; of the trauma caused to their families as they have been left dangling on police bail for months. One describes feeling like ‘a fish on a line in the middle of a feeding frenzy’. Talk of the criminalisation of journalism hardly sounds like tabloid hyperbole.

In the shadows of the hysteria around phone hacking at the News of the World, two other major scandals have gone almost unnoticed. The first is the political and police crusade to demonise popular journalism, not simply applying the criminal law but singling journalists out for special treatment. The second scandal is that many of those who cry out about attacks on freedom of the press around the world have remained silent about the criminalisation of journalism on their doorstep. As one arrested journalist puts it: ‘If this was happening in Zimbabwe, China or North Korea, there would be a shitstorm of opposition here - protests outside the embassies, the NUJ would be on its high horse, all that. But if it’s British redtop journalists working for Rupert Murdoch? “Naa, fuck ‘em.”’

As if to illustrate that point, the Guardian, which likes to think of itself as the leading liberal voice in the UK, if not the entire world, recently ran a feature demanding, ‘Is journalism being criminalised?’. But that was about the US state persecuting the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The British state persecuting tabloid journalists apparently does not register on their outrage meter. Perhaps that should not be surprising: after all, Guardian writers pushed for the police to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against the tabloids in the first place.

A sign of how far things have gone is the reaction to recent reports of a meeting between Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp owns the Sun and owned the News of the World, and the arrested Sun journalists. Leaked transcripts and recordings of this heated exchange reveal Murdoch being fiercely criticised by his own newspaper men and women for the way that News Corp’s Management Standards Committee (MSC) handed over heaps of emails, receipts and other evidence to the police, effectively serving up journalists and their confidential sources to the state on a plate. In the words of a letter from the wife of one arrested Sun writer, read out at the meeting by the paper’s agony aunt Deirdre Sanders, the assembled staff made clear that they feel ‘betrayed, abandoned and isolated’. In response, Murdoch admitted that he had panicked in the face of the 2011 phone-hacking revelations, expressed his support for the arrested journalists, and announced that the MSC had stopped cooperating with the police campaign. The headline response to these revelations was to express outrage – not at the MSC’s betrayal of the journalists, but at the very idea that a newspaper proprietor should now dare to criticise the police and side with his staff. Labour MP Tom Watson, a veteran Murdochphobic, demanded that the Metropolitan Police should now interrogate Murdoch over this thought crime against the state.

The untold story here is of a politicised, PR policing operation, and the threat it poses to the future of a free press. It might have begun with the revelations of phone-hacking at the News of the World – something which none of the journalists I have spoken to would defend. But that soon became the pretext for the pursuit of a wider agenda against popular newspapers.

Back in January 2007, the royal editor of the NotW and a private detective had been jailed for hacking into the voicemail messages of members of the royal family. The scandal only really exploded, however, in July 2011, after the Guardian reported that the News of the World had not only hacked into the voicemail of abducted Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler, but had also deleted key messages, giving her family false hopes that the murdered teenager was still alive.

Amid a wave of public and political outrage, the Met – stung by accusations that it had not treated phone hacking seriously – launched a high-profile operation against the tabloid press to try to regain some authority. Meanwhile, News Corp panicked, closing the NotW and setting up the MSC to deal with the fallout by cooperating with the police investigation.

The result was that journalists, first from the closed News of the World and then from the Sun, became assailed from all sides. ‘It was a perfect storm’, says Mike Sullivan, crime editor at the Sun, who was arrested in January 2012 and not cleared by police until April 2013. ‘They had to do a Rolls Royce job on all of us to make up for the mess they made of the hacking investigation.’

Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, was arrested on suspicion of phone hacking in July 2011, just days after the storm broke over the hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemail. As he points out, the Guardian’s claims that the NotW had deleted key messages turned out not to be true. But that made no difference to the politicians and police chiefs now out to get tabloid journalists.

Wallis’s treatment set the pattern for what was to come. ‘I only had six police officers at my door to arrest me and search my home. I later heard stories of people who had a dozen at least turning up.’ He was put in a cell, questioned for hours, and released just before midnight. He spent the next 20 months on police bail before finally being told there would be no further action in February 2013.

‘It has taken out two years of my life and affected my whole family’, he says. ‘The only way I can describe it is being played with by the state. You just felt the state was toying with you. The police would say “we’ll see you again on 7 June”. Then on 6 June they ring up and say “actually we’ll see you in July”. Just to dispirit you. It is like being in some crazy Kafka story. Even at the very end they kept me hanging on for an extra 29 minutes, before announcing there would be no further action. They had to put that last bit of pressure on me, the final turn of the screw.’

During his long wait on police bail, Wallis experienced the ordeal of the PACE clock. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act says that the law can only question a suspect for 24 hours. However, they can spin out those 24 hours of questioning over an indefinite period. ‘After being on police bail for 20 months, they had had me in for only about 17 hours of questioning. I even heard a duty sergeant adding it up and chuckling, “Oh, we’ve got loads of time to hold him yet!’”

Then matters took another Kafkaesque turn. In response to the phone-hacking investigation, the MSC went way beyond what the police were asking for and handed over a mass of internal News Corp emails, documents and evidence that had nothing to do with the NotW or allegations of hacking. The MSC effectively acted as a volunteer police informant on journalists working for the same parent company. As a direct result of this, the Met expanded its investigation to include alleged press payments to police officers and public officials. It launched Operation Elveden, and turned the spotlight on to the Sun.

The Sun journalists arrested tell of their shock when plainclothes police officers banged on their door around dawn. There are stories of floorboards being ripped up, everything from books to cereal boxes being closely searched; not just family computers but children’s iPods being confiscated; teenage daughters made to stand outside their bedroom while police went through their knicker drawers; a child throwing up in the kitchen sink as their father was taken away. They all describe the raids as fishing expeditions, searching for evidence of wrongdoing rather than investigating known offences, the Met apparently pursuing a policy of arrest first, ask questions later.

‘It was political’, says Sun crime editor Mike Sullivan. ‘They were making a statement, putting on a show. The Met publicised the arrests. They claimed they sent so many officers to make the searches quicker. But we are talking about alleged white collar crime with no threat of violence. In the biggest fraud cases involving the biggest houses, people who know say they would never send more than four officers. There were about 10 of them at my house.’ At the end of his 14 months dangling on police bail, the Crown Prosecution Service was asked to explain the decision not to charge Sullivan. ‘The CPS said well, we haven’t had a file! After 14 months they didn’t even have a file on me.’

The police operation against tabloid journalists now exploded into the biggest in criminal history. Last year, deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers, who was then running the three investigations, told a committee of MPs that the operations were likely to last three more years, involving almost 200 officers at an estimated cost of £40million. ‘We have to remember’, says Neil Wallis, ‘these were not armed robbers, or drug dealers or terrorists’. And nor were most of them guilty of anything more than using long-established journalistic practices to obtain information from sources. ‘How many crimes of violence have gone unpunished’, asks one of the arrested Sun journalists, ‘because of the mind-boggling resources put into an operation against journalists whose biggest crime is getting a story into a newspaper? If you put 200 policemen with a hundred support staff and an unlimited budget into any institution in the country, you could drag two dozen people out of there kicking and screaming into the cells if you wanted to.’

Others, of course, will insist that the journalists must be accountable to the law like anybody else. But that is not what has happened here. Journalists have been singled out and made an example of. That was emphasised by the recent exposure of a top-level police report that shows they knew six years ago that phone hacking was widely used by top corporations, law firms and public figures, with the press possibly accounting for only 20 per cent of hacking offences. ‘They all knew about it’, says Wallis. ‘The police knew, Lord Justice Leveson knew, he saw the report. And they couldn’t give a toss. They just wanted to nail the newspapers.’ As reported on spiked last week, it seems that hacking is an offence only if you are a press hack.

Mention of Lord Justice Leveson brings us to the question of how the police have been able to get away with this. The Met has effectively been acting as the armed wing of the Leveson Inquiry. That showtrial of the tabloid press was all about demonising popular journalism as ‘unethical’ or worse. Sue Akers of the Met even told the inquiry that there had been a ‘culture of criminality’ at the Sun – despite the small matter of no Sun journalist having been convicted of any offence. The three police operations against journalists have put the prejudices expressed at Leveson into practice, cheered on by the political class with the acquiescence of much of the liberal media.

The other secret of the police’s success has been the deafening silence of the UK’s civil liberties and human-rights lobby. High-minded lobbyists who campaign for a free press around the world have turned a blind eye to the mass arrest of journalists in Britain. None of the arrested journalists I spoke to have ever had any contact from Liberty or any other leading civil-rights lobby, ‘even off the record’. But then, Liberty chief Shami Chakrabarti was a member of Lord Justice Leveson’s panel of the great and good sitting in judgement on the press. ‘They have sold out for a seat at the top table’, says Wallis.

The arrested journalists remain bitter about their treatment at the hands of the Met. ‘The police’s own disciplinary code says that their actions must be “timely, fair and proportionate”’, Mike Sullivan points out. ‘Look at what’s happened in our case, it stinks.’ Many of them have had long and close working relations with the police. ‘Some of my best friends are police officers’, says Sullivan. ‘I don’t take it personally, the company and the police had to be seen to act.’ Wallis declares himself ‘a confirmed police groupie’. That did not save them from being caught up in the politicised PR exercise by the Met.

Most bitterness appears to be reserved for the Management Standards Committee set up by News Corp. That was reflected in the meeting with Rupert Murdoch, where Graham Dudman, managing editor of the Sun, reportedly said that ‘the people in this room are the human cost of the decision that was taken - we believe in haste - to set up the MSC and give it, what we believe, was the sole aim of protecting News Corp at all costs. We believe that we are the human cost of that decision.’ More than one arrested journalist mentioned to me the infamous statement, put out by a PR firm hired by the MSC after the arrests started, which declared: ‘We are draining the swamp.’ Sullivan says, ‘After 20 years on the paper, I admit I felt sick to my stomach at that. And I still do.’

Despite the feelings of betrayal, these men and women retain a fierce pride in popular journalism and the tabloid papers that they have worked on. They also understand that a free press cannot have what is in the ‘public interest’ to publish dictated by the law. ‘I know somebody who loves reading the Daily Star every day’, says one. ‘Personally I think the Star is a crock of shit, but I would defend people’s right to buy it with my last dying breath.’

So what might the consequence of this campaign of criminalisation be for the future of investigative journalism? The ‘Leveson effect’ has already had a serious impact on relations between the police and the press, with officers effectively barred from talking to journalists and the media now only being allowed access to ‘authorised information’. ‘The problem with that’, says crime editor Sullivan, ‘is who authorises it?’. He contrasts the situation here with the US. ‘Take the American cop who shot the Boston bomber. One of our blokes rang up the shooter at work, got put straight through to him, he was quite happy to give us an interview then and there on the phone. It’s unthinkable that would be allowed to happen here. We’re just light years behind.’

There are fears of wider consequences, too. ‘This will have vast repercussions for journalism’, says Wallis. ‘The oppressive left wants to crush journalism that it doesn’t approve of. It will stultify and terrify a lot of journalism. Whether they like it or not, the tabloid press does an important job informing and entertaining millions of people. The Guardian and the Independent are not going to do that. The BBC is certainly not going to do it. And that’s bad for democracy.’

‘It has changed my life’, says an arrested Sun journalist, ‘and changed the way I think about living in this country. Whether you like popular journalism or not, you are living in a police state.’ He thinks it does not mean the press has been ‘irreparably damaged’, and that it will recover. ‘But it will never be the same again. The rumbustiousness, the publish-and-be-damned mentality, which was a great British thing, has gone now. That is a terrible shame, and Britain is a less free country for it.’

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Images

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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