Steve Richards: No one is above the law – and that includes journalists at 'The Sun'


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The Independent Online

The manner in which parts of the media condemn the various investigations into their conduct highlights how they got into trouble in the first place. In the past, some journalists behaved as if they were above the law. Some appear to expect now a higher threshold of leniency or tolerance compared with everyone else. At the very least they demand a generous sense of proportion that they do not apply when reporting on politicians or others.

Last summer the questions in relation to the hacking saga were stark, clear and posed with near universal support. How extensive was the law breaking? Why did the police fail to investigate? What needed to be done to address the situation?

Before we have the answers, other questions are raised that move the arguments in entirely the opposite direction. Why are the police investigating so thoroughly? Why are newspapers being cowed into pathetic subservience? In different ways the questions are posed by a wide range of voices, from John Kampfner in his role at Index on Censorship, who has expressed broad worries about the media becoming more fearfully servile, to Trevor Kavanagh, who intervened in yesterday's Sun to protest about the arrest of journalists and the manner in which the police went about their activities.

Kavanagh has a strong point about the heavy- handed way in which such arrests are made. The early morning arrests, which he vividly describes, are unnecessary and disproportionate as they were during the absurd "cash for honours" inquiry conducted by "Yates of the Yard". I hope Kavanagh expressed the same outrage then.

But the essence of his main argument is preposterous. He warns of a press that is "bullied by politicians into delivering what they, not the readers, think fit". The implication of his entire column is that Britain is in danger of slipping into a police state as a result of political bullying, the noble Sun silenced by a bunch of elected thugs. I can reassure Trevor Kavanagh, and indeed my good friend John Kampfner, that from my experience politicians are still in awe of newspapers, fearful of them like trembling children in a playground.

The more important point is that Kavanagh returns to his default position of blaming politicians for what is happening when the sequence of events does not justify his paranoia. Reluctantly, and after hesitating at first, Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry into media standards, with a remit so wide it was destined to be both revelatory and meandering to the point where it becomes lost in a whirl of unconnected themes, personalities and issues. Belatedly, last summer select committees of MPs and parts of the media also exposed the scandalous failure of the original police investigations.

After which the politicians stood back. Leveson and the police took over. What did Kavanagh expect the police to do next? Scotland Yard could hardly issue a statement along these lines: "In the light of our failure to investigate the alleged law-breaking of some newspapers, and the exposure of our indiscriminately close and sometimes lucrative relationship with some journalists we now intend to conduct no further investigations".

Making sure journalists obey the law is not the same as an assault on press freedom.