After the busted witch-hunt, the botched cover-up
Ignore the Met’s spin and remember the lessons of Operation Elveden.
At the end of last week, the Metropolitan Police announced the official end of Operation Elveden, the huge police campaign against alleged corruption in public office that led to the arrest and failed prosecution of dozens of tabloid journalists. Yet in a bid to spin the humiliating end of the Elveden debacle, the Met declared that it was ‘certainly not an attack on journalists or free media’ in Britain, insisting instead that it had been a worthy police operation on behalf of victims of crime. Such nonsense might even be funny if the Met had not tried to do such serious damage to press freedom in Britain.
Operation Elveden was the biggest witch-hunt against journalists in a supposedly free society in modern times. Under Elveden, the Met arrested 34 tabloid journalists from the Sun and the defunct News of the World, accused of paying for confidential information, many in floorboard-ripping dawn raids on their family homes. Along with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the police then tried to have these journalists jailed for doing their jobs – that is, revealing information that our secrecy-obsessed authorities want to keep hidden from public view. They wanted to nail tabloid journalists not for telling lies, but for revealing hidden truths.
Through Elveden the Met and state prosecutors effectively tried to make up a new law, specifically framed to fit-up reporters and editors. They dusted off the centuries-old common-law offence of misconduct in public office (originally framed to deal with crown officials such as Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall fame, not prison officers and lowly civil servants) in order to prosecute public employees who sold information to the press. More than 30 of them were convicted and many were jailed.
Then the authorities added on the newly minted offence of ‘conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office’ to enable them to prosecute journalists receiving this information, who were not of course public officials at all. Their attempted fit-up failed because the British public, represented by juries, refused to go along with the witch-hunt and repeatedly found the accused ‘guilty’ only of being journalists. Of the 34 tabloid journalists dragged from their homes and through the courts, only two have been convicted. One of them pleaded guilty as part of a sentencing deal, having also admitted to phone-hacking offences. The only reporter actually found guilty by a jury, Anthony France of the Sun, was not sent to prison; he is now appealing his conviction, and in the light of Elveden’s collapse it would be extraordinary if he is not successful.
As we have insisted on spiked all along, we are always being lectured about how journalists are ‘not above the law’; the lesson of the Elveden debacle is that they cannot be treated as ‘beneath the law’, either.
Now the Met has made a final desperate attempt to cover up their Elveden humiliation, with the help of their tabloid-bashing allies in the BBC and elsewhere. First, they claim that they had no choice but to prosecute after ‘having received from News International what appeared to be evidence that crimes had been committed by police officers’.
It is certainly true that as part of the panicked reaction to the phone-hacking scandal, which led to the closure of the News of the World, something called the Management Standards Committee, set up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, did the wrong thing by handing over thousands of internal emails to police that were subsequently used in Elveden. That does not explain or excuse the extraordinary lengths the authorities went to in their crusade to criminalise tabloid journalists for doing their jobs.
Then the Met claim that actually the failed Elveden witch-hunt has been a success anyway, since it has stood up for ‘400-plus victims’. As top media lawyer Gavin Millar QC (who has often defended the Sun, as well as me and LM magazine in our 2000 libel case) responded, misconduct in public office is ‘essentially a victimless offence that exists for public-policy reasons, so all this talk of “400 victims” is quite unbelievable’.
‘Unfortunately’, Millar went on, ‘we live in a culture where people are always characterised as “victims”. But it totally undermines the concept if you talk about serial killers and child murderers [who were the subjects of some of the leaked stories] being “victims” of a free and open press.’ As Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, adds: ‘In nearly all cases, those stories were in the public interest, or at the very least they did no demonstrable harm. That is why the prosecutions of journalists all collapsed.’
In a last bid to spin Elveden, the Met and the BBC now insist that the prosecutions of journalists actually ended because more senior Appeal Court judges pointed out that the law on the ‘public interest’ had been misapplied. So apparently it all turned out to be a good thing, because it helped to clarify the standing of journalists and the ‘public interest’ in a free society. Tell that to the reporters and editors whose careers were blighted and lives put on hold while they were left in limbo on police bail for years on end, before facing trial and, in some cases, the prospect of retrial. The reason the Appeal Court made that judgement was because juries had already thrown out so many cases. The standing of a free press was defended by the democratic wisdom of jurors, not the elite insights of the judiciary, who still feel it is their exclusive right to define what might be in the interest of the public to know.
The humiliating collapse of Elveden’s witch-hunt is a victory for a free press, but the fight continues. From the moment senior Met officers asserted at the Leveson Inquiry that there was a ‘culture of criminality’, of making illegal payments, at the Sun – before a single journalist had been tried, never mind convicted – this crusade has demonstrated the true contempt in which the UK state holds the popular media and the populace. Just days before the official end of Elveden, Met chief Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe had the gall to tell a committee of MPs he found it ‘odd’ that jurors had failed to convict tabloid journalists as instructed by the police and CPS.
Elveden is over at last, but the lessons should not be forgotten. Anybody who wants to see more state involvement in the regulation of the media should be reminded of what the state has tried to do to press freedom over the past five years. Anybody who wants to take a stand for free speech today, in our universities or elsewhere, should be reminded that it is an indivisible liberty that must be defended for tabloid hacks as seriously as for high-minded academics. And any UK politician who tries to pose as a friend of freedom should be put on the spot about their support for press freedom.
As Millar said, it is one thing to ‘question the ethics of whether a journalist or news organisation were justified in paying for information, or whether it was in the public interest’ (to which my answer is: the strongest moral and public-interest case is always on the side of press freedom). But ‘what makes this different is that the Met took journalists into the criminal-justice system. If you look at the countries with the worst press freedoms in the world – Russia, China – these are the nations where criminal proceedings are taken out against journalists.’
Yet the supposedly freedom-defending UK police spent millions pursuing their campaign to criminalise tabloid journalists and sanitise what one top prosecutor called, in open court and with open contempt, ‘the gutter press’. Some might think that, to coin the Met chief’s phrase, ‘odd’. Others of us might think it far more revealing about police priorities and political aims than all their sugar-coated public statements.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(USA) and Amazon(UK).)