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.