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