by Brian Cathcart
If you had told me just a few weeks ago that these five things would come to pass, I would have laughed in your face.
• The Sun would complain that the police are trying too hard and are being mean to crime suspects.
• Sun journalists would seek trade union help with legal action under the Human Rights Act.
• The Daily Mail would go to court to prevent the Leveson inquiry (and thus the public) from hearing information on the grounds that the source is anonymous.
• Rupert Murdoch’s News International would be accused – by journalists – of co-operating too vigorously with the police.
• Some national newspapers would argue, at least by implication, that corruption in public office, that staple of journalistic investigation and outrage, doesn’t really matter.
That every one of these has now happened is surely a measure of the desperation of some newspapers – and of their inability to see themselves as others do. Because they are the media, they are well-placed to project their case and to get it talked about (especially on the BBC, which they all loathe), but repetition and scrutiny does them no favours.
The argument by Sun veteran Trevor Kavanagh that his paper is the victim of a witch-hunt by the police is now seen to fail on every possible count. The excellent Full Fact, for example, has shown that the few facts he called in evidence were wrong, while the blogger Richard Wilson has chronicled Kavanagh’s own past cheerleading for police excess and his disrespect for due process.
But setting facts and consistency aside (a useful Sun device), the very idea of this bullyboy, dish-it-out, don’t-care newspaper dressing itself up as a tragic victim is enough (as the Sun might write) to make us choke on our cornflakes. “Boo hoo”, the headline might say, and we would all laugh.
The scaremongering over the exposure of sources is another shameless attempt to make us view events through the wrong end of the telescope. This is not an instance of the establishment seeking to suppress truth by putting pressure on a journalist to reveal the identity of a whistleblower. It is a case of a very powerful corporation that has been found to be involved not only in large-scale law-breaking but also in a cover-up that raises suspicions of possible police collusion.
Just as Perrier, to save itself after its product was contaminated in 1990, recalled 160m bottles from around the world, so, if the rest of the Murdoch papers are to survive, News International must take strong action to decontaminate the brand. Far from being bad for Sun journalists, this is necessary to save their jobs.
As for corruption, the implication is put about that what is at issue is £50 lunch receipts, where journalists treated police officers. The suggestion is made that paying officers is traditional and helps keep the public informed. And we are gently nudged towards accepting that because it might occasionally be right for a journalist to pay a discreet bribe, all instances of journalists bribing officials must be above scrutiny.
That sort of thinking is put into context by today’s reports, attributed to sources at the Met’s Operation Elveden, about bribes and retainers worth tens and even hundreds of thousands of pounds. If there is even a risk of that, we urgently need to know the truth.
But the Murdoch papers don’t want you to think that. They don’t want you wondering how widespread and damaging the corruption of public servants might have been. Instead, in yet another you-couldn’t-make-it-up twist, they want you to think – the Sun wants you to think – that the most important issue of the moment is a point of journalistic ethics.
Somewhere in all this, there is indeed an issue about protecting sources, but sadly it is dwarfed by bigger concerns about a company that became far too powerful by means that are now deeply suspect. The urgent public interest is to find out whether police and other public officials really were corrupted and by whom, and if so to hold all involved to account.
The Murdoch papers have a problem of trust and they need to fix it. By propagating transparently ludicrous arguments in their defence they are doing the very opposite, and for their own good they should stop.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets @BrianCathcart