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
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.