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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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