The Met: the armed wing of the Leveson Inquiry
The escalating police campaign against UK tabloid journalists is a PR stunt that threatens the future of investigative reporting.
A disclaimer: we know that Britain is not a Big Brother-style police state. There is no suggestion that the UK is in danger of becoming Zimbabwe-on-Sea, where dissident journalists are persecuted by the authorities. On the other hand, however…
There is something rotten in the state of Britain. One stark illustration of this is the escalating police campaign against tabloid journalists – a campaign that appears to be not so much an act of political persecution, more a bizarre PR stunt on behalf of the Metropolitan Police in response to the Leveson Inquiry. But whatever the motives, it poses another threat to the future of a free press and investigative journalism in the UK.
Since the News of the World phone-hacking scandal exploded in 2011, the Met has been running three big investigations into the alleged crimes of the tabloid press. Taken together, these have become the biggest investigation in British criminal history. A few months ago, the senior Met officer in charge of these operations told MPs that the anti-press campaign, involving 185 investigators, would last another three years and cost £40million. Since then things have escalated further still.
Last week, police arrested six more former NotW journalists in a new hacking probe, two of whom are current Sun writers. Like many of the hacks pinched before them, they were arrested in dawn raids on their family homes by heavy cop squads, as if they were suspected of armed robbery rather than listening to somebody’s voicemail messages.
According to the Press Gazette website, this means that ‘more than 55 UK journalists have been arrested over the last two years as a result of the various police inquiries stemming from the News of the World hacking scandal’. No fewer than 20 Sun journalists have been arrested so far as a result of the Elveden Inquiry into alleged illegal payments to police and public officials. None of those 20 has been charged with any offence, instead being left in limbo on police bail.
On top of the round-up of tabloid journalists, a growing number of police officers and public officials have also been arrested, accused of collaborating with the press. This side of the operation, too, has escalated of late. Last month, former top terror cop April Casburn was sentenced to 15 months in jail for attempting to sell information to the News of the World, although no money changed hands and no story resulted. Then, last week the Met arrested one of its own superintendents in a 6am raid. A police statement confirmed that this arrest marked a further expansion of Operation Elveden’s net; ‘[Elveden’s] remit to date has been into allegations of inappropriate payments to police and public officials. Today’s arrest, however, relates to the suspected release of confidential information but not alleged payment.’
In other words, that superintendent was arrested not for taking bribes but for allegedly having contact with journalists – something that has long been a central part of the job for the police and the press alike.
In this, the Met is effectively acting as the armed wing of the Leveson Inquiry. That inquisition has, from the first, been a showtrial of the tabloid press, imbued with the prejudices of those who think that ‘popular’ is a dirty word and that dirt-digging journalism is beyond the respectable pale. The huge police operations have been putting those prejudices into practice.
The serious consequences of all this go some way beyond the fate of the individual journalists caught up in the Met’s crusade. These trends risk chilling and further sanitising the future of investigative journalism.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the UK press makes various proposals that would criminalise aspects of investigative journalism. He wants to change the 1998 Data Protection Act to give journalists less protection when acquiring information through backdoor methods – and suggests that those who break the tightened rules should be jailed for up to two years. Leveson also suggests that the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act should be amended to give less protection to journalists’ confidential sources of information. Leveson wants to remove the ‘journalistic exemption’ for material that has been ‘stolen’ – which would mean most leaked information – and let the police or even the Financial Services Authority go into newspaper offices and seize it, without the sort of special court orders required now. On top of all that, the good lord justice also wants to outlaw the age-old practice of ‘off-the-record’ briefings between police and the press, so that information could only be released through ‘official’ channels.
The effect of these proposals would be to make it easier for the British state to keep its secrets, and far harder for investigative journalists to get at the truth on the public’s behalf. In scooping up tabloid reporters and swooping on officers who talk to them, even where no money changes hands, the Met appear to be operating as if Leveson’s draconian measures for policing the press were already law. Coming on top of a situation where investigative journalism is already seriously hampered by both financial and legal constraints – such as the 2010 Bribery Act, which makes it illegal to pay whistleblowers for information – these measures threaten to create the conditions for what one top tabloid news editor recently described as an ‘ice age’ for investigative reporting.
It would be bad enough if the state were running a political campaign of persecution against the popular press. It is arguably worse, however, to see such repressive policing pursued largely as a PR stunt designed to improve the Met’s public image. The police elite were badly stung by the criticism they received around the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry for being too ‘cosy’ with the press – particularly the Murdoch papers. This backlash cost the Metropolitan Police commissioner and other senior cops their jobs. In a knee-jerk response, the new hierarchy has tried to demonstrate its new image by pursuing a high-profile campaign against their former friends in the media, in an extraordinary way that can only damage the future operations of both the police and the press. The press itself has not been immune to overreactions either – much of the information on which the Met has based its arrests was handed over by News Corp’s own Management and Standards Committee.
What we are witnessing looks increasingly like a police campaign to make a public example of the tabloid press. The press and journalists should, of course, be accountable to the criminal law, but no more than anybody else – and sometimes, if the search for the truth demands it, less.
Investigative journalism always involves the use of underhand and sometimes ‘unethical’ methods, since it is a struggle to reveal what somebody else – usually somebody with power – wants to keep hidden from public view. It is a basically a dirty business in which all kinds of tricks might be justified. Even a top Guardian reporter told Leveson that he had hacked a target’s phone. Whether a particular reporting tactic is legitimate in relation to a story is a judgement call that journalists and editors have to make in the specific circumstances of the moment, and then justify to their readers – and, if necessary on occasion, to a jury of their peers. But decisions about the rights and wrongs of underhand reporting are not ones that should be taken by judges or coppers in any healthy democracy. Leave that to the police states.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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