Almost everyone seems to agree that the police overreached themselves when they recently questioned a journalist from The Guardian under caution. Amelia Hill, who has been responsible for a number of phone-hacking revelations over the past few weeks, spent some time being interviewed by the Bill. This followed the arrest last month of a detective in connection with alleged leaks from Scotland Yard's phone-hacking investigation.
I obviously have no idea whether he was her source, but it is pretty clear from reading Amelia Hill's pieces that she is peculiarly well-informed about the police inquiry, called Operation Weeting. For example, on 28 July she and Nick Davies co-wrote a Guardian "exclusive", which revealed that Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter was abducted in July 2000, had been told by Scotland Yard that her phone was probably targeted by Glenn Mulcaire on behalf of the News of the World.
The questioning of Ms Hill was nonetheless extremely odd, as well as indefensible. Crime reporters regularly depend on police sources for inside information about police investigations, and members of Scotland Yard are not above snitching on their colleagues via the public prints. If newspapers were prevented from publishing information given to them by police sources, there would be an awful lot of blank spaces to fill. I hope that in the new climate of rectitude the police are not going to pretend they are more virtuous than they are.
Several people, including the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have defended off-the-record briefing of journalists by public officials. But he and others draw a distinction between this practice and payment to police in return for information, which is always deemed wrong. In a similar vein, the Labour MP Tom Watson says: "There is a world of difference between a journalist who bribes a police officer for information, and a journalist who gets information from a police officer, freely given." Not necessarily, I would say.
Surely the test is the nature of the story. I would defend paying for information (though it might well fall foul of the new Bribery Act), phone hacking and other underhand or even illegal methods if there were no other way of obtaining an important story plainly in the public interest. If an official had information that a government minister was being bankrolled by a foreign despot, and payment were the only way of acquiring that story, I would be strongly in favour of handing over the money. This is in effect what The Daily Telegraph did when it paid a six-figure sum for a stolen computer disk which contained information about MPs' abuse of expenses.
These important distinctions are in danger of being forgotten amid the post-phone-hacking moralising. I hope the high-minded members of the Leveson Inquiry will not lose sight of them.
Is the BBC in denial about Newsnight?
When an institution responds to an article with a pompous or discourteous letter, one can be sure the article has hit home. That was my feeling last week when I read a letter in this newspaper from Stephen Mitchell, Head of Programmes, BBC News, following my item last week about Newsnight.
Mr Mitchell reasonably took me to task for suggesting that Newsnight is averaging around 450,000 viewers. The figure, he rightly says, is about 700,000. His complaint about a Broadcasters' Audience Research Board quoted figure of 166,000 viewers on 19 May is less well made, for the BBC's own figure of 257,000 (which I mentioned) is hardly much better. Nor did he admit that the average audience this year has fallen from 800,000 in 2010, or indeed 1,068,000 in 2001.
But my central point did not concern Newsnight's slowly declining audience, which of itself is not certain proof that it needs freshening up. It is simply my view, and that of many people I have spoken to, that something has gone slightly wrong with a programme which many still cherish. The pugnaciously defensive tone of Mr Mitchell's letter – and a recent blog by Helen Boaden, BBC's Head of News – suggest to me that some senior people in the Corporation may be in denial.
A tough question for Louise Mensch
The Tory MP Louise Mensch is making a name for herself as a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Her interrogation of Rupert and James Murdoch on 19 July was commended by David Cameron the following day in the Commons.
But how tough has she really been with the Murdochs? Last Tuesday she defended James on Newsnight, contending that he had "plenty of wriggle room" and, despite new evidence apparently suggesting he was aware of the extent of phone hacking, said that it was "not at all made clear that he had been told that wrongdoing extended beyond Goodman and Mulcaire".
A re-examination of her performance on 19 July shows that, although effective in her questioning of the Murdochs, she was also elaborately polite to them. Meanwhile she wrongly accused Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, of having admitted to phone hacking, and insinuated that the Daily Mail had been involved, though without offering any evidence. In more ways than one, she is a woman worth watching.