The past few days have seen a dramatic and unexpected realignment of forces in the phone-hacking scandal. Until a week ago it seemed that the Murdoch Press, in particular the News of the World and The Sun, was excoriated by almost everyone: polite society, the liberal intelligentsia, the police, hacking victims, newspaper rivals and politicians. Tabloid journalists working for Rupert Murdoch were all tarred with the same brush.
Then came the second wave of arrests of Sun journalists over alleged corrupt payments to the police – and everything changed. Though some incorrigible haters of Murdoch welcomed the arrests, finding further evidence that all his tabloid journalists operate in the same sewer, others who might not have been predictable defenders of The Sun became concerned. They saw that important issues of press freedom were at stake, and deplored the way in which the Management and Standards Committee, a Star Chamber set up by Mr Murdoch, had apparently passed information to the police revealing the identity of journalists' sources.
One might have expected the same horrified response to "tabloid excess" that greeted the News of the World's shenanigans, and in some instances the usual critics piped up. But the National Union of Journalists weighed in on the side of the Sun journalists, as did the eminent liberal QC, Geoffrey Robertson, in a magnificent piece in The Times. He urged journalists to stand up for their rights, and argued that protecting sources is a legal and moral duty. Even more strikingly, he asserted that payment to public officials for information is not unlawful if it is in the public interest.
This article, appearing as it did in a Murdoch newspaper and therefore aided and abetted by James Harding, editor of The Times, was a shot across the bows of the inquisitors of the MSC, in particular its in-house Torquemada, Will Lewis. An MSC source, who for all I know could have been Mr Lewis himself, was on to Media Guardian quicker than a rat up a drainpipe, telling the website that some public officials had received more that £10,000 from The Sun and were "effectively on retainer". In other words, payments to police and other public servants were allegedly paid on an industrial scale that is difficult to square with Mr Robertson's picture of reporters paying officials for individual stories.
Rupert Murdoch's email to staff announcing the imminent launch of The Sun on Sunday, and his reinstatement of the arrested journalists until or unless they were charged, were interpreted favourably by some of his journalists. Nonetheless, he identified with the MSC, saying that it would continue to "turn over every piece of evidence we can find". He said his company "cannot protect people who have paid public officials". Mr Robertson's response was that Mr Murdoch's email was "full of errors, both of law and history", and that the MSC was under no obligation to hand over evidence to police because the identity of sources is protected by law.
Where does this leave us? Mr Murdoch, it seems to me, is making few concessions to Sun journalists. The launch of a new Sunday title was intimated by him to a Commons committee last July, and predicted by this column in September. The reinstatement of the arrested journalists was an act of natural justice. But the inquisition goes on, and the notion that the MSC is free to give police the sources of Sun journalists is not questioned.
Mr Murdoch is a ruthless man who believes he has to show investors that the stables have been hosed down. If this process involves transgressing a sacred tenet of journalistic conduct, tough.
And yet he may not have things all his own way. The involvement of the NUJ and Mr Robertson, as well as the voices raised in the rest of the Press on behalf of the Sun journalists, give me heart. Of course systematic payment to public officials irrespective of the nature of the information divulged cannot be defended. But reporters may have paid for stories in a way that was perfectly lawful.
What Sun journalists are perhaps beginning to understand is that their interests and those of Mr Murdoch are no longer the same. Is it too much to hope that inveterate Murdoch-bashers will concede that not all Sun journalists have been engaged in the Devil's work, and that some of what they do may even be in the public good?
Magazines prosper with little online presence
Serious newspapers lose sales, serious magazines – or some – gain them. ABC figures for the second half of 2011 show fortnightly Private Eye up 10.1 per cent year-on-year to a 25-year high of 228,112 copies. The Week grew 3.9 per cent over the same period to 187,536. The monthly Oldie rose 6.4 per cent year-on-year to a record 41,008. The weekly Economist and monthly Prospect showed tiny gains. The Spectator was down 9.6 per cent year-on-year, but rose 1.1 per cent over the previous six-month period.
What do these magazines have in common apart from being grown up? They all have limited web presence, and what there is must be paid for.