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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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.