A witch-hunt against the Sun?

Why those at the tabloid should be more concerned with News International than the police.

The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh has described the weekend's arrests of journalists and others as a "witch-hunt". Some, who should know better, are nodding along to this. It is, of course, nothing of the kind, as the sensible Brian Cathcart has calmly explained. However, what is actually happening is a serious matter for those at the Sun and perhaps elsewhere at News International.

But first, a few words about "witch-hunts". It is a phrase often invoked when someone is faced with the sort of sustained and deliberate scrutiny required to overcome obstructions and evasions. In the case of the Sun it is because police officers, operating under the law, have arrested suspects as part of their enquiries. Those suspects are entitled to due process and could well not be charged. They are entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This is not a "witch-hunt". It is just the normal approach of the police to those suspected of crimes.

The Metropolitan Police are doing something that those who work for a powerful media entity do not like. Instead of the cosy relationship where editors routinely had lunches with senior police officers and their press advisers, and where various reporters allegedly saw nothing wrong in paying public officials for information, there is the short sharp shock of practical law-enforcement. Journalists have turned out not to be above the law: all those tabloid demands for "law and order" were not only for other people.

Nonetheless, there is something deeply uncomfortable about journalists being arrested by the police. But there was also something uncomfortable about members of parliament being taken to police stations. In the latter case, this rightly did not stop democratically elected politicians being arrested, charged, and then convicted for criminal offences over fraudulent expense claims. The enforcement of the Rule of Law in respect of parliamentarians did not mean the undermining of a liberal and democratic society, just as now holding the media to account will not mean either anarchy or repression. In both cases, the fearless and impartial enforcement of the law of the land is a sign of a healthy democracy, not an alarming symptom of political decline.

However, those at the Sun are right to be nervous. News International, through its Management and Standards Committee, is now being ruthless and commercial in dealing with the alleged wrongdoings of all its British titles. In doing so, News International is showing no more sentimental attachment to its reporters than it did thirty years ago to its print workers. It is akin to when a despot withdraws his favour from certain underlings: they are not "thrown to the wolves" but they suddenly are treated like any other subjects, and they then have to account for their actions when they thought they could get away with it.

No sensible person wants another newspaper to close. Indeed, the only people who seem to think closing down newspapers is a solution to the current problems appear to be the senior management of News International. The demand is for better journalism, not for no journalism. There is -- and was -- simply no need for vibrant, mass-market newspapers to use the "dark arts" of blagging or hacking, or to make corrupt payments to public officials. Wise-heads in the industry realise this, and there is likely to be a firm distinction between pre- and post-Leveson journalism.

But in the meantime, whilst it may well seem a good tactic to cry "witch-hunt", all that many can hear are the tabloids crying wolf.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.