In the public interest? Reflections on the conviction of a Sun journalist
By Jeevan Vipinachandran
The emergence of more evidence on the extent of Phone hacking, the ongoing vilification of vulnerable individuals and recent allegations of illegal payments to police officers (including a counter-terrorism officer) have all done little to rebuild the public’s trust in newspapers. And yet, Lord Justice Leveson has already provided the press with their get out of jail free card. Developed over the course of a year, and in consultation with an exhaustive list of stakeholders, he recommended a model for regulation which would protect the press and also the public. The question therefore remains why the industry has not grasped the opportunity to change their ways or even if, given the existing culture in papers, they are able to?
Operation Elveden, the ongoing investigation into allegations of inappropriate payments to police by journalists, is certainly not the brightest moment in the history of the British press. It is indicative of a deeper underlying problem, of reporters willing to break the law as opposed to merely pushing at the boundaries to get the scoop, without an adequate public interest justification for doing so. What worsens the damage from a public perspective is that some of the reporters are sometimes committing illegal actions for stories on comparatively trivial issues – what the judge at Anthony France’s trial called ‘’obviously salacious subject matter’’. Of course, the officer involved was concerned with UK national security, which makes matters worse. It undermines to some extent not only the honest work of the press but public trust in the national security apparatus, which is going to be problematic as the UK enters close proximity to a major terrorist threat.
The fact that there seems to have been an established procedure for making hidden cash payments to public officials at the Sun, and that this was an established pattern of behaviour points to a defective working culture, which is arguably created by the senior journalists on the paper. It cannot have helped the image of journalism, already under pressure, and will increase calls for the acceleration of reforms. This culture is strongly evident in France’s own testimony, where he said he was never told it was illegal to pay a police officer. The CPS prosecutor’s words on the case: ‘’public interest is a very different thing to what interests the public’’ are indeed apt. An established pattern of behaviour where legal boundaries are crossed routinely by several individuals suggests strongly that there is a cultural issue, and considering that there is very little that can easily influence or bend work culture from outside, this comes from the journalists themselves.
Journalists should not be pariahs. The industry is largely populated by fiercely intelligent ethical professionals who are largely motivated by the rigours of independent investigative journalism. It is the culture inside newspapers that produce the horrible articles and commit egregious breaches of the law, it is not the journalists. Culture cannot be easily externally imposed, but it can be slowly changed in the pursuit of a greater moral imperative. One positive outcome of the Anthony France trial would be if the national media can pick itself up, dust off and move on in a radically different and more moral direction. The time has come for action and real commitment to change.
Jeevan Vipinachandran holds an MSc in politics from LSE. He has worked with the Conservative Party and the Henry Jackson Society on several research projects. He is now an intern at the IMPRESS Project.
He has written this article in a personal capacity.