As the dawn raids on journalists continue, why are police giving them the Sweeney treatment?

Police rummage through underwear drawers.

Forrmer News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis has taken the arrest of former Times journalist Patrick Foster as an opportunity to ponder the unprecedented and undeniably heavy-handed series of police raids on journalists over the last year.

Foster, 28, was arrested on suspicion of computer-hacking police on Wednesday morning. He was dragged from his bed at 7am and driven off in an unmarked car as his “terrified pyjama-clad girlfriend” looked on. If police had simply googled his name or had a browse through the evidence relating to him in the Leveson Inquiry they could have found out exactly what he is accused of doing.

As a junior reporter on The Times, he guessed the email password of anonymous blogger Nightjack in order to unmask him for a story in 2009. He immediately reported this to his superiors and while everyone seems to have been clear that it was dubious ethically – no-one apparently clocked on to the fact that he had broken a pretty obscure law.

What Foster did was naïve and stupid, and there was clearly a catastrophic failure to give him support and guidance on the part of his superiors at The Times, but it really is baffling to understand why – three years on – the Met Police felt the need to give him The Sweeney treatment.

Without naming names, Wallis goes on to recount in his blog post for the Huffington Post some of the other victims of the current police purge on British journalism. Without excusing bad behaviour, let’s not forget that these journalists are accused of using unscrupulous methods to reveal the truth to their readers. It’s not about personal enrichment and they haven’t physically harmed anyone.

Wallis notes Rebekah and Charlie Brooks were taken away from their newborn baby at 6am in the morning and not allowed to return until late that night.

There have been several suicide attempts, with one journalist attempting to jump off a bridge and another turning up for a police interview with bandaged arms from an attempt to slash their wrists - Wallis reports.

The teenage daughters of one senior executive were apparently ordered out of their beds and told to stand apart while police searched their underwear drawers.

One shocked parent had to watch as their children vomited in fear as strangers marched through their home, Wallis notes.

The wife of another journalist who was sick with cancer was ordered from her bed so officers could search under her mattress.

Wallis writes: “One of the journalists arrested in the early days of Operation Elveden, for example, has still not been charged many months on from his original arrest. His police bail has twice been extended and he has been warned that if he is eventually charged the earliest a court can hear the case is late 2013, possibly 2014.

“That mirrors my personal circumstances. Arrested by a dawn knock on 14 July 2011, I am still under investigation, have already been bailed three times, am due to return bail again next month September 2012, but have been given no inkling whatsoever of what happens then. If I am charged, my lawyers warn it could be at least another year before any trial.

“Like a number of others, I lost my job upon arrest and have been unemployed since. Like others, I see little prospect of that changing. Even if I am cleared, isn’t my career in ruins? The strain is significant.”

This article first appeared in Press Gazette.

Behind bars. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.