Monday, 18 June 2012

Arrest 1 Public Right To Know 0.

Contrary to what a few appear to think - most journalists do not consider themselves to be above the law.

Indeed, there are countless occasions when reporters assist police investigations despite there being  nothing (editorially speaking) to be gained from doing so.

Quite how that relationship is going to work in the future seems uncertain - particularly given the treatment of some two dozen or more colleagues from The Sun newspaper during the last few months.

Most have been arrested in front of their families during dawn swoops on their homes - not permitted to dress, shower, or even take a shit on their own without an officer in view.

The investigation is into whether they made corrupt payments to public officials - not because any were involved in phone hacking (the sister investigation run by the Operation Weeting unit).

The vast majority have had their collars felt, so to speak, as a result of their own bosses at News Corp and its UK division News International handing over evidence of what they say is potential wrong-doing as part of an internal clean-up operation. No other newspaper group - UK or otherwise - has followed suit.

As we all know, the Management and Standards Committee (MSC)  - chaired by Lord Grabiner QC at  £3,000 an hour - was set up at a time when the company was desperately trying to divert attention away from James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks.

In contrast to say the much-maligned Leveson Inquiry, it is not independent and does not publish evidence on a website for all to see. Nor is it supported by Parliament or Mrs Brooks's friend the Prime Minister.

The only expense claims or other documentary evidence it has handed over to Scotland Yard to date has been that of rank-and-file staff from The Sun. No executives have been reported for authorising any of the "corrupt" payments despite the fact that they would have signed them off.

Odd too that so many senior managers from News Int met leading police officers - as we know from Leveson - yet none of these expense claims were then passed to the Yard.

One principal reason why so many Sun reporters have been getting wake-up calls from the police at 6am is because the MSC, in its wisdom, decided to check all records dating back ten years.

Staff at The Times were told the company was only checking back over the last 12 months. Not exactly fair you might say, but then the MSC is making up all the rules in this particular game.

One could say that the injustices outlined above are hardly down to the police who, after all, are simply doing their job.

Until recently - whether we liked it or not - many journalists would have reluctantly agreed.

But as the arrest count continues to rise there is growing evidence that some officers from Operation Eleveden are becoming increasingly speculative and perhaps even looking to limit free speech and investigation.

Last week's arrest of Sun journalist Neil Millard is a prime example. Neil, 31, was arrested at his home in Croydon in the early hours of the morning. He was driven straight to a police station and left alone in a cell for 13 hours before detectives saw fit to interview him. Again the information which led to his arrest was provided by the MSC.

What is perhaps all the more extraordinary about this particular arrest is that the basis for it was that officers wanted to know if Neil had paid an official for a story he wrote about child killer Jon Venables.

The article was published in March 2010 and revealed how Venables was enjoying a comfortable existence behind bars which included his own 36in TV screen and various board games.

If there isn't a clear public interest in a journalist revealing that Jamie Bulger's killer was getting VIP treatment in jail then what point is there in having investigative journalism? If this story is reason enough for police to arrest a hack then what isn't beyond the reach of Operation Elveden?

The arrest also came despite Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, saying in April that it was important that the public's right to know remained protected.

Introducing a new 17-page guide for prosecutors, Mr Starmer said: "Freedom of expression and the public right to know about important matters of public debate are an essential foundation of our society - but there are limits for those who cross the line into criminality.

"These guidelines will assist prosecutors in striking the right balance between those interests in cases affecting the media.

"Journalists, and those who work with them, are not afforded special status under the criminal law, but the public interest served by their actions is a relevant factor in deciding whether they should be prosecuted in an individual case."

Now either officers from Op Elveden haven't bothered to read the words of Mr Starmer or - as seems more likely - they think its OK to arrest anyone then worry about whether prosecutors throw it out later.

Once upon a time we would have been writing about this kind of authoritarian police approach in the likes of Russia or the Middle East - now it seems the UK is no different.

Journalists are the ones suffering in the short term but it might well be that the public - and their right to know - end up losing out in the longer term.


1 comment:

  1. 'Prisoner has a TV set'.

    You really think that trumps making illegal payments to a prisoner officer?