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Tuesday, February 14, 2012 

Not quite payback.

For those who spare themselves the daily assault on sanity that Newsnight increasingly resembles (last week saw Naomi Wolf and Katie Price on the same panel, with the artist formerly known as Jordan fobbing off Paxman's inquiries as to why she had decided to repeatedly mutilate her breasts) you'll have missed last night's tussle between Charlotte Harris and Nick Ferrari over the arrests at the Sun. Harris quite reasonably felt it was a bit rich for the employees of the Sun of all papers to complain about the tactics of the police, considering how often they seem to have been invited along in the past on dawn raids or had helpful information leaked to them. Ferrari instantly decided this meant Harris regarded the Met's antics as "payback", and therefore they were absolved as it was about time.

Rather, the response not just from the Sun but also from those defenders of the free press at the Daily Mail just showcases the everlasting truism of Corporal Jones's catchphrase: they don't like it up 'em, as indeed the Sun itself has often commented. The Sun and the Daily Mail, in their fantasy ideal world, want a police state for real criminals, the burglars, murderers and paedophiles, a slightly less rigorous regime for white-collar offenders, and an almost free society for Mr and Mrs Law Abiding Citizen. This though is not an ideal world, and the kind of treatment that the Sun openly applauds when it comes to collaring drug dealers or suspected terrorists is simply unacceptable when those being arrested are among the "legends of Fleet Street". The dawn raid is in fact fairly standard police procedure, as it's when those being sought are most likely to be home, and carrying out the arrests all at once also makes sense when, as the High Court heard recently, even directors at News International may have attempted to destroy evidence. Informing those due to be brought in may well have given them just such an opportunity.

It is also doubtless the case that the Met under its new leadership, the last commissioner having had to resign as a direct result of his links with former News International employees, wants to be seen as both independent and as following the evidence, having miserably failed to do so when first alerted to Glenn Mulcaire's activities. For this new spirit the Met is naturally being roundly assaulted. Richard Littlejohn, that chronicler of police PC madness, writes of how his fellow hacks are being subjected to "Gestapo tactics" and how Knacker of the Yard is guilty of a "massive abuse of power". Similar to the complaints when Ruth Turner and Damian Green respectively were arrested, with MPs from Labour and the Conservatives quick to denounce the burgeoning police state when it was their own being nicked, so now we have those other lovers of ever increasing police powers deciding that it's not such a good idea after all now that the attention of coppers has turned towards them.

The Sun being the Sun, it couldn't possibly help exaggerating. Trevor Kavanagh in his piece yesterday and in his subsequent interviews talked of how "up to 20" officers were ransacking the homes of journalists, only for the Met to point out later that "no more than 10" had been involved in any such arrest and subsequent search. Difficult as it is to comment when so few details about Operation Elveden have been made public, although that's hardly stopped Kavanagh, with others whispering that this is all about relatively inconsequential things rather than out and out corruption, it remains the case that payments to the police are illegal, and have been for years. While there's a potential public interest defence for every form of subterfuge, and it's possible that revelations from within the police could have exposed corruption or incompetence, far more likely coming from the Sun is tittle-tattle or worse on arrested suspects, such as the stories the Sun and News of the World printed on the Koyair brothers, all of which were wrong.

Kavanagh's conclusion, that this myriad of inquiries and investigations might result in a cowed press where politicians decide what WE can and can't read might have more traction if the likes of the Sun didn't already trumpet what their chosen man of the moment wants the public to hear at every opportunity. Similarly, if any politician was calling for statutory regulation, or if Lord Leveson was even hinting that would be his chief recommendation, it would be time to start worrying. Instead, as Steve Richards points out, politicians still have an awe for the press which it increasingly doesn't deserve. The real risk from the current police investigations is that it puts whistleblowers in general off, especially if they believe that their details might at some point yet be sifted through. Journalists can't work without sources, and if they fear being exposed even if no money changes hands, then we do have a problem. It should be noted though that the most recent breach of confidentiality between journalists and sources came at the Sunday Times, where editor John Witherow handed over emails between Vicky Pryce and the paper's political editor Isobel Oakeshott, almost certainly resulting in the charges against both Pyrce and her ex-husband Chris Huhne.

As amusing as it is that the boot is now firmly on the other foot, it doesn't really compare to the hilarity of News International employees finally discovering just how ruthless Rupert Murdoch is. Despite all they've done for him, or think they've done for him, it counts for nothing when there's the potential for a corruption investigation into News Corporation as a whole in the US. Kavanagh might not like the suggestion that there's a swamp at the Sun that needs to be drained, but this is essentially Keith being cruel to be kind: the Management and Standards Committee's cooperation is surely preferable to the closure of the Sun as a whole, isn't it? As for these legends of Fleet Street, Rupe couldn't care less, as was shown when he maintained he'd never heard of Neville Thurlbeck, the Screws' chief reporter and onanist extraordinare. Appealing to someone still set on world domination, even if it no longer involves his British newspapers, isn't going to cut it any more.

In any case, the Sun simply can't help itself. As Kavanagh and friends complain bitterly about their treatment at the hands of the Met and how really unfair it all is, the paper itself campaigns for the immediate deportation of Abu Qatada. Who needs the rule of law anyway?

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