Last Friday, at around 9.30 AM, an eerie silence descended on most of the UK. in this first solar eclipse of the social media age, all the main sites were bombarded with images of the not-quite-full eclipse, accompanied by excited messages containing most of the usual superlatives.
To be sure, witnessing such a natural phenomenon does produce feelings of awe, wonderment and the sheer excitement of novelty of the source of all our power suddenly disappearing in the middle of the morning. But few commented on the accompanying audio dysfunction – the sudden and almost complete lack of birdsong. A ‘silent spring’ for two minutes.
We cannot know, of course, what goes on in the feathered brains of these amazing creatures when faced with such a dramatic and unexpected change in their environment. While most of us were Tweeting, their only response was to suddenly stop their twittering so they could try to concentrate and work out what was going on. The eclipse was at its peak for only a couple of minutes, and soon the country was returned to a normal spring day. It’s doubtful if the birds reflected or pondered further on what had happened – they were probably content that nothing dreadful seemed to have occurred, and got on with their food foraging, mating and nest-building.
About 200 miles south from where I was standing in my rooftop position to witness the eclipse, and a couple of hours later, the Central Criminal Court cleared four senior journalists at The Sun of various payment-for-information charges. The four had been suspended from their jobs for some three years and had lived with the uncertainty and anxiety of the looming case and the fact that, if found guilty, they could be imprisoned, losing their employment completely and quite likely their family homes.
In several cases, they had been arrested following dawn raids at their homes, with burly police officers barging through the bedrooms of their terrified children, seizing computers, documents, etc, as if it was thought they were likely to commit a terrorist act, rather than possibly have broken the law in offering payment to various officials to obtain information with regard to legitimate journalistic enquiries of incompetence, injustice and cover-ups by the state.
And it is not just the national press and the more robust, populist end. In the same week, a former journalist on local titles in the north of England told LBC’s Nick Ferrari about the Gestapo-style tactics used by the police and politicians, including threats of the use of the Official Secrets Act, to stop him investigating claims, from a former Labour Cabinet minister, of a paedophile ring involving a number of MPs and others in the political establishment, allegedly even involving the murder of several children. You can hear the interview (from March 17th) here, copyright LBC.
The prosecutions of The Sun journos were part of the most costly criminal investigation in the history of London’s Metropolitan Police and at a time when this force, along with others in the UK, have faced very significant cuts (we’re apparently now going to have to rely on i-Plod to patrol our streets) and whose leaders have complained that they lack the financial or manpower resources to tackle and prevent numerous acts of terrorism and paedophilia.
Post-Leveson enquiry and public disgust over the activities of a small number of journalists, mostly working on the ‘red top’ tabloids, and the police smarting under public opprobrium for their utter failure to stop the grotesque paedophile Jimmy Savile, and the incompetence, corruption and cowardice of the police, prosecutors, local councils and other public bodies over Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, and Mid-Staffs NHS, there is apparently no limit to the resources poured in to these investigations and prosecutions against journalists.
Let’s not forget that these latter show trials have been about the practice of journalists paying some public officials for information. Not for stories that are likely to breach national security, endanger the lives of intelligence agents, and tell our enemies ( who would kill everything and everyone we hold dear and dance on our graves) the modus operandi and limitations of their surveillance – that sort of thing is left to the fearless liberal-left press, who receive international awards and bask in the lavish approval of their peers. No, these included – true – some tittle-tattle about the Royals, but also about suicides at a military barracks and the lack of proper equipment for our armed forces. It’s a shame that some people ask for money for this information, but it’s a wicked world, and their informants face a big risk if identified of being prosecuted themselves, and certainly of dismissal from their jobs.
The result of all this time, money and personal and incalculable personal cost has been the conviction of a total of three journalists, two of which are currently out on appeal. But Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is unrepentant and stated that investigations and prosecutions will continue. Despite criticism from many who know about such legal matters that the evidence against many of the journalists was of the flimsiest most unreliable kind, which, in any other circumstance, would not have led prosecutors to bring a case against them, there is not a shred of regret or apology. I once called Ms Saunder’s immediate predecessor Keir Starmer – now a Labour party candidate at the general election – ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and I had hoped that his successor would be of a different hue; but, if anything she is far worse.
But back to the silence. The most ominous and despicable silence and far more disturbing than that witnessed from our feathered friends was the complete absence of any criticism of these trials from supposedly liberal, serious broadsheet newspapers, particularly The Guardian and The Independent and their Sunday offerings. These are ‘papers with the most astonishing self-regard and who never fail to take the moral high ground and flaunt a protest letter posted superiority from the grubbier ends of the press. In their printed editions, so far as I can see (I’ll happily correct this if anyone can find something) there was complete silence. There was one blog post in the online edition of The Guardian; a comment by former tabloid editor Roy Greenslade, who has appeared as a witness for defence of Sun journalists. Respec for Roy! Otherwise, it seems these papers, who are self-proclaimed defenders of free speech, of liberty and against the abuse of power in every other respect, except when it comes to defending journalists working on tabloid newspapers – particularly the contemptible (Boo! Hiss!) Murdoch Tabloid press.
True, both The Guardian and The Independent reported the case and some of the criticisms, but I have searched in vain in both yesterday’s and today’s (Sunday) ‘papers for any editorial, leader, comment piece or even letter published criticising these prosecutions and supporting journalists who have faced the fullest extent of the powers and intimidation of the state and in the end been found not guilty by a jury of their peers.
To read more pungent criticism you have to go to the (Boo! Hiss!) right-wing Daily Telegraph. Better still was the top Leader article in another part of the Murdoch (Boo! Hiss!) press, the loss-making, cross-subsidised The Times the day after the trial, titled simply enough, erm, ‘Enough’. (Copyright News UK):
Journalists are citizens. When they break the law they should be prosecuted. But when successive juries in long, complex and colossally expensive cases refuse to convict them, those pressing charges should pay attention.
Yesterday four journalists from The Sun were cleared at the Old Bailey of paying public officials for stories. John Kay, Duncan Larcombe, Geoff Webster and Fergus Shanahan had been under suspicion for more than three years. Their acquittals leave the Crown Prosecution Service with just three convictions from 24 journalists brought to trial as a result of Operation Elveden.
CPS guidelines require a “reasonable prospect of conviction” before bringing a case to trial. The record in these cases does not suggest a reasonable prospect of conviction in future ones, and especially in retrials. Yet Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, insists that they will go on.
The impact of public anger over phone hacking and alleged corruption in newspapers has been profound. The News of the World, owned by The Times’s former parent company, has been closed. The Leveson inquiry has prompted newspapers to establish the Independent Press Standards Organisation, a new self-regulatory body with more power and accountability than any of its predecessors — and more independence than the alternative proposed by those who would muzzle a free press.
Public servants have been muzzled, too. This week they were banned en masse from talking to the media without authorisation. Relations between press and police had already soured. Now journalists whose job it is to hold government to account may talk only to those employed to talk to them. This is another assault on free speech. Jurors know it when they see it, and Mrs Saunders should heed their verdict.
The final points relate to the new guidance given to civil servants, which , with one of those exquisite ironies of timing, was being close to being ‘signed off’ on Friday. From now on, it seems, ANY contact with the media has to be cleared by the ‘appropriate’ level of officer. So, ,just at the time when we know that if only Whistleblowers had come forward, had their stories investigated and been published without fear of criminal sanctions, literally hundreds of people may have been saved from the most grotesque sexual assaults, bullying, malpractice and even death. Just when the Defamation law has been made slightly less draconian, there is now a new ‘chilling effect’ on the press.
It is time for journalists – tabloid, broadsheet, right-wing/populist, liberal-left, national, local – to join forces and to relentlessly and ferociously attack every attempt to muzzle, harass, intimidate or obstruct them in their activities, subject only to the general law of the land. Even then, as I’ve argued at length before (sorry about second self-referential link!) journalists should have a solid and transparent public interest defence for breaking certain laws, when it can be shown there was a legitimate public interest in pursuing the story and where there was a clear ‘case to answer’ from those being investigated; i.e.. it would not be a defence for ‘fishing trips.’
In May 1968, the proprietor of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror penned a front-page editorial in his paper, ‘Enough Is Enough‘, calling for the expulsion of the democratically elected Labour government of Harold Wilson and its replacement by a pseudo-military team – including, it must be presumed, a certain Cecil King. This was more than enough an excuse for the board of the ‘paper’s parent body to dismiss King – who was, of course, nuts. But at least ‘papers then didn’t always slavishly follow a set ideological path and political allegiance, and had bosses who could see where their long-term interests lay (the electorate was to reject the Labour Party at every opportunity from that point, up to and including the next general election).
Newspapers need to combine now to form a common response and oppose everyone who supports further restrictions, intimidations and freedoms, even if they are the leaders of their preferred party.
‘Divide and rule’ is the oldest and most exploited technique of those in power. At the moment, the press are busily constructing their own gallows and paying the hangman. I don’t know whether Cecil King’s notorious piece was in the minds of The Times‘ Leader-writer on Friday. But, whatever: Enough is enough.