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

Politicians are still in awe of newspapers, fearful of them like children in the playground

Steve Richards
Tuesday 14 February 2012 01:00

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 as 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. They are thrilled when a leader or a columnist praises them and descend into gloom when they are attacked. Far from controlling newspapers, even the most powerful politicians in the land still dance to their tune. I suspect one reason why David Cameron is against a U-turn on the NHS reforms is that parts of the media would be more critically disdainful than if he presses on.

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."

The silliness of such a response shows that the police had no choice but to follow every lead in the current subsequent investigation. This has nothing to do with political pressure and quite a lot to do with the need for the police to demonstrate integrity after their extraordinary lapses in the past.

The other development comes from within News International where the pressure is not political but corporate, as News Corp seeks to protect its reputation in the United States. With News International accused of failing to co-operate with previous investigations, a mountain of material is now being made available. After past failures, the new investigating team of police officers is obliged to climb the mountain. As in the crazed, fast-moving world of politics, disparate events conspire to make life unbearably intense for those caught up in the frenzy.

In this case, context explains all. If Yates of the Yard and others had conducted a thorough inquiry the first time around, if News International had co-operated, it is possible that the number of journalists being scrutinised might be much lower. Because some police officers and a few journalists appeared to go to some effort to make sure that no light would be shone, a great bright light shines now. But, above all, if journalists had not broken the law and wrecked people's lives, there would be no police investigation.

This has nothing to do with politicians wanting to create some sort of police state. Indeed, the assumption is that in a new form, not yet specified, the press will continue to be self-regulated once Leveson concludes.

I wrote last summer that the police investigation was likely to be more devastating than the Leveson Inquiry, as it would feel obliged to follow all the evidence having ignored it before. Such an obligation was always going to extend beyond the activities of one newspaper. Yesterday, some of the journalists I spoke to, and quite a few politicians, were supportive of Kavanagh because the latest arrests are in relation to investigations about alleged illegal payments for stories and are almost certainly not in the same league as the hacking saga. The latter point might be true, but the constant running theme still applies. If the laws are wrong, newspapers are in a very powerful position to campaign for a change to them. What they have no right to do is break existing laws.

If a politician is in trouble, or a trade union leader out of control, the likes of Kavanagh and his newspaper are on to them. There is no room for nuance or qualification, no paragraph acknowledging that perhaps an embattled minister was trying to do the right thing but ended up in a mess. Some journalists, newspapers and police officers are now in a mess. Making sure they obey the law and face the consequences of not doing so is not the same as an assault on press freedom.

Twitter: @steverichards14

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