Operation Tuleta: a warrant to hound the tabloids

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, highly publicised trials and subsequent convictions, the public perception of Britain’s tabloid journalists is at an historic nadir. As such, a call to protect those often accused of profiting through the manipulation of the vulnerable will gain short shrift in some quarters - but their protection is of paramount importance for the freedom of the British press.

This week, the first criminal trial played out in what has been dubbed Operation Tuleta – the Met’s name for the low-profile sister project of the probe that put former News of the World editor Andy Coulson in Belmarsh Prison.

A former Sun reporter called Ben Ashford faced criminal charges for downloading information from a ‘stolen’ phone which held ‘saucy pictures’ of an unnamed BBC broadcaster. The photos and texts on the phone seemed like the perfect basis for a classic scandal story; it never made the paper for legal reasons. In terms of investigative journalism the scoop was hardly a Watergate moment, but this makes no difference. Throughout Operation Tuleta the police have used a series of underhand nuisance tactics to bully a host of tabloid journalists in a way that would never be acceptable if perpetrated against broadsheet reporters.

The basic charges made against Ashford were fairly jumped-up to begin with, as was reflected in the jury’s swift ‘not guilty’ verdict. The phone in question was ‘stolen by finding’ – a nightclub punter picked it up from the floor of a club and, discovering the sordid details it held, took it to the Sun. The would-be tipster later accepted a caution for this flimsy charge, which gave the police free rein to pursue Ashford as an accessory to this crime, when his only action was looking through a phone found in a nightclub.

The original sequence of events occurred in 2009, but Ashford wasn’t arrested for four years. He even cooperated and returned the phone directly to the police at the time the investigation was launched.

After the incident was all but forgotten, in a bout of grotesque posturing under the auspices of the phone-hacking investigations, the Met sent teams of policemen on dawn raids to the houses of several Sun reporters alleged to have committed similar crimes. Reporters were pulled from their beds and their houses were turned over as if they were gangland drug lords – the most serious charges any of them still faces is handling stolen goods, while most have had all charges dropped. One reporter was kept on bail for 13 months on paper-thin charges that could have been cleared in a week.

In the name of press regulation, the police have continued to bully and harass this group of reporters. Ashford’s counsel described the charges against him as a grotesque act of ‘messianic zeal’ from the Crown Prosecution Service. Many would turn a blind eye and sneer at Ashford’s original motives, but freedom of the press is not the preserve of Guardian journalists leaking state cover-ups alone. It needs to be protected at all levels.

Jack Prescott is a spiked intern.

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