The Sun, the baby and the bathwater

Posted: February 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm

by Brian Cathcart

There is fury and fear among Sun staff after the latest round of arrests by police investigating the alleged corruption of public servants by journalists, and there is more widespread alarm about the future of the press. Where will this end? Will other papers close, as the News of the World did? Is the baby of free expression about to go down the plughole with the murky bathwater of journalistic misconduct?

The anxiety is likely to increase as Rupert Murdoch visits London this week. Though he has said he has no intention of closing the Sun, he is not (how to put this?) a man distinguished by the rigid keeping of his word. It is easy to see why nerves are frayed.

But the picture is not as bleak as some fear, and News International and the Metropolitan Police are only doing what they have to do in a society ruled by law. (We need to note, too, that nobody has been charged with anything.)

It is only a few months since News International was rightly lambasted for covering up evidence of, and information about, potentially criminal activities. That material, about phone hacking, had to be dragged out of the company, notably by civil litigants who for the most part have now settled their cases.

If, as now seems to be the case, the company is now diligently searching its databases and handing everything suspicious that it finds to the police, then we should be grateful. Nor can we complain that junior figures are suffering the consequences while the top brass are spared: those arrested (and bailed) are for the most part big hitters.

As for the Met, it is doing its job. It may well be doing it with a special zeal, in response to criticisms about a previous absence of zeal, but we can hardly complain about that either. And it is not as though it can make up new laws. Where they have information about possible breaches of the law the police are supposed to investigate, question, search and so forth, and that is what they are doing here.

Corrupting officials matters, too. If local government officials take bribes to fix planning applications for builders, or if defence officials take bribes when awarding arms contracts, we expect prosecutions of both those to pay and those who receive. More than that, we expect the press to expose such wrongdoing, and journalists tend to take pride in the work. Corruption creates injustice and is anti-democratic.

Will the pursuit of these matters lead to unwanted consequences? Will it corrode free expression? I can’t see why.

There are no grounds for Murdoch to close the Sun, and if he were to do so it would be another short-sighted, cowardly and capricious act like the closure of the News of the World. He has to take responsibility, show leadership and steer his paper (which is by any measure a national institution) through the crisis.

Does it follow that other papers are in danger? I have no idea, but if journalists on other papers have been bribing public officials (something which nobody can fail to realize is against the law) then they need to face the consequences. It is no use saying that the law is wrong or unfair; if that is the case the right course is to try to change the law, not to ignore it. (Newspapers are rarely tolerant of others who consider themselves above the law.)

The bathwater of unethical and illegal practices in journalism needs to be drained, and the Leveson process exists to do that. There is no reason to suppose that the baby of free expression will be washed away in the process. A far more realistic prospect is that, if we are persuaded to leave this bathwater where it is, the baby will drown in it. Corrupt journalism is the enemy of free expression; it places us at the mercy of monopolists, bullies and lawbreakers. We surely don’t want that.

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets @BrianCathcart

6 comments

  1. Wellesley

    …..”if journalists on other papers have been bribing public officials (something which nobody can fail to realize is against the law) then they need to face the consequences…”

    Journalism is more complex than this. Let’s not forget that journalists from every major title on the planet, good and bad, has over the years paid officials for easy passage through customs, credentials, tip-offs – in some cases – and more. What about the massively inflated fees – bribes, frankly – paid by the western press to officials from nasty regimes (including Saddam’s) in return for visas? That’s wholly justified by public interest, and rightly so….but this is a grey area, that requires careful thought.

  2. Voice of Treason

    In the case of papers like the Sun and Express, there is no baby; it’s all bathwater. What they call ‘free expression’ is nothing but corporate and government propaganda, xenophobia, racial and religious hatred, bigotry and outright lies, all sugared with mostly-fabricated celebrity gossip.

    Real free expression is only found on the internet these days, which is why governments and media oligopolists are trying their damnedest to stifle it with new legislation such as ACTA, SOPA, PIPA and the rest.

  3. Julian Petley

    For sheer gall and hypocrisy, the front page of this morning’s Sun really does take some beating. Screeching about freedom of expression by a paper which has constantly called for the censorship of other media (most notably the video industry and the public service broadcasters) would be simpy laughable were it not so nauseating. And how very fascinating that Trevor Kavanagh turns out to be a bleeding heart liberal when it comes to dawn raids by the police, events which have frequently been accompanied by Sun photographers in the past – as in the case of Harry Redknapp for example. Even more extraordinarily, since when was the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ one in which this paper believed? Or do different standards apply to Sun journalists on the one hand and people like Chris Jefferies, The Birminham Six, The Guildford Four, Barry George and the dozens of other innocent people traduced by this paper? Pass the sick bag, Alice.

  4. nicki

    “It may well be it (the Met) is doing it with special zeal in response to criticisms about a previous absence of zeal, but we can hardly complain about that either.”

    Er, yes we can. Special zeal on behalf of the police to gloss over previous cock-ups should never be acceptable. That represents two wrongs being allowed to make a right.

    If it’s true that 20 officers were sent to arrest one middle-aged newspaper exec (what’s he going to do – make a run for it?), then it is, as the Telegraph says more correctly, disproportionate.

    If they want to launch surprise raids between 6am and 8am on a Saturday morning, fine, and investigate suspicious payments, fine also. But 20 officers? Half a dozen might have been more in line with actual requirement.

    So far, there have been 10 Sun execs and reporters arrested in this round; one police officer; one army official and a civil servant. Presumably we can look forward to the arrest of more police officers? Was everyone bribing the same people?

    Or will the Met be allowed to concentrate on arresting and investigating journalists rather than its own? And gloss over it’s previous lack of zeal by overcompensating this time round.

    Regardless of any potential wrongdoing at The Sun, these are still questions worth asking, especially for a professor of journalism.

    As for Murdoch not having any grounds to close The Sun, why not? By the yardstick of the NOtW, there’s not much difference. Nearly a dozen working journalists have been arrested and are on bail and presumably suspended, including the deputy editor and picture editor. Or is that too many scalps for you and your campaign this time round?

    • rob

      “As for Murdoch not having any grounds to close The Sun, why not? By the yardstick of the NOtW, there’s not much difference.”

      No, but he then didn’t need to close the NOTW. It was all part of the plan to put it “in a box” to quote Murdoch jnr. Most of the cats are out of the bag now so there is less incentive for it to be closed down.

  5. rob

    I think it is ironic that they, who wish to place themselves above the law and then influence (by means legal and/or otherwise) the makers and upholders of the said law, should now be squealing when the law turns on them. Perhaps if they had behaved themselves or at least tried the clean the stables earlier then it would not have come down like the deluge all at once upon them.

    It does not bode well that they do not appear to be learning from the Leveson process whereas at the same time public are beginning to learn what goes into making a tabloid “news”paper. The complaint goes up “they don’t understand how newspapers work”. Well, perhaps now we do!.