By any assessment, Saturday mornings have got to be a source of double dread for News International journalists right now. As well as promising the queasy after effects of Friday-night forays through the mean streets of Wapping, they now threaten impromptu drop-ins from Her Majesty’s constabulary, complete with uprooted floorboards and evidence seizures.
The arrest on 11 February of five Sun staffers – including chief reporter John Kay and picture editor John Edwards – marked not just an escalating seniority in the Met’s pursuit of journalists suspected of paying its own officers for titbits, but the second major identification of Sun and News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch with the crisis in his own newspaper group. Any moment now, Murdoch is expected to touch down in the UK to take charge of the Sun in its hour of need. The visit is bound to draw comparisons with his mission of July last year when he flew out to pull the plug on the News of the World after its admission of multiple phone-hacking incidents, and salvage the unsalvageable position of then-News International CEO Rebekah Brooks.
Like the Millennium Falcon under duress from the Death Star’s powerful tractor beam, the mogul’s mogul can’t stop himself from being tugged back into the turmoil. Still, the paper’s PR machine – now operating as a purely molten entity – has kicked in with the obligatory round of ameliorations, starting with a staff memo by a Murdoch-briefed News International spokesperson: “The Sun has a proud history of delivering ground-breaking journalism,” it said. “I have had a personal assurance today from Rupert Murdoch about his total commitment to continue to own and publish the Sun newspaper. Today we are facing our greatest challenge. [Editor Dominic Mohan] is committed to leading the paper through this difficult period and, while today’s arrests are shocking, we need to support him and his team to serve the loyal readers of the Sun and produce a great paper for Monday.”
That “great paper for Monday” contained the first, tangible proof that Sun journalists are starting to lose their hitherto implacable cool over the crisis, in the form of a stinging column by associate editor Trevor Kavanagh. A man through whom the Sun logo runs like letters in a stick of rock, Kavanagh attacks the “witch hunt” of News International staff by Operations Weeting (phone hacking), Tuleta (computer hacking) and Elveden (police payments) – and criticises what he perceives to be a disproportionate manpower allocation across the probes.
Kavanagh’s words on that topic are certainly alarming, given the wider context of police commitments. News International journalists, he wrote, “are subjects of the biggest police operation in British criminal history – bigger even than the Pan Am Lockerbie murder probe. Major crime investigations are on hold as 171 police are drafted in to run three separate operations. In one raid, two officers revealed they had been pulled off an elite 11-man anti-terror squad trying to protect the Olympics from a mass suicide attack.”
However, there is a difference between alarming and alarmist, and Kavanagh occasionally strayed across the divide. “Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted,” he added. “Yet all are now on open-ended police bail, their lives disrupted and their careers on hold and potentially ruined. Is it any surprise that Britain has dropped nine places to 28th, behind ex-Soviet bloc states Poland, Estonia and Slovakia, in the international Freedom of Speech league table?”
In fact, there is no such thing as an “international Freedom of Speech league table”: what Kavanagh is disingenuously referring to is the Press Freedom Index 2011, compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Perhaps he has omitted to consider the notion that a drop in the UK’s ranking is inevitable given the scrutiny of the three investigations, and that it could very well rise again in around three years, once they and the Leveson Inquiry have run their course? Much like company shares, these values can go up or down depending on the prevailing circumstances. According to the index, we are precisely 151 places above the distant last, Eritrea: it’s a bit previous to suggest that we’ve been blitzed by a jackboot tap dance just yet.
At the end of his column, Kavanagh quite rightly noted: “Interestingly, nothing on this scale is envisaged for the banking industry which has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.” If it were, though, would the pro-Big Business Sun be the first to cry foul? Is it not simply the case that a police probe becomes a witch hunt as soon as your side is on the receiving end?
In parallel with Kavanagh’s attack, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) hurled its own squadron of brickbats into the mix. While criticising the dawn raids on journalists’ homes and echoing Kavanagh’s “witch-hunt” accusation, the group directed much of its scorn towards the Management Standards Committee set up at News International for the purpose of passing potentially valuable evidence on to the police. Set up by Murdoch in the wake of the News of the World’s closure, the committee is currently helping officers to process 300 million emails in the company archives, in what can be seen as the most consummate exercise in bending over backwards outside the Cirque du Soleil.
In a press release, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “As my evidence to the Leveson Inquiry showed, journalists are often bullied by management to get stories at any cost. Now they are finding they are being shopped by the management that gave them their orders. The reputation of these journalists – and let’s remember they have not been convicted of anything – will inevitably be damaged.” She added: “The NUJ believes that newspapers should co-operate with the police where there is evidence of illegal activity, but making this material available without consultation with the journalists involved is unacceptable.”
Police suspicion climbing journalist hierarchies; mounting disquiet over investigative methods; a major Sun editor venting his spleen; union anger over an embedded division established to placate the police: in sum, an atmosphere baked tinder-dry, and ready to combust.
Mr Murdoch – welcome back.
For more on the phone-hacking scandal, click here