In 2010, Andrew Norfolk was driving to an appointment when he heard a radio news report about a gang of men who had been convicted of the systematic sexual abuse of a teenager.
Norfolk was The Times‘ correspondent in the north of England, where there had been a handful of court cases involving Asian gangs preying on young girls. It was a difficult story to report.
Norfolk’s path into the story became clear when he found it being obstructed by the very people he thought should be most concerned for the girls. At almost every turn, the authorities seemed more interested in preventing the story from being reported than in the crimes being committed on their doorstep. And they were prepared to use any weapon to silence him–an approach that many say is becoming more common and poses a threat to press freedom in the U.K.
James Harding, then editor of The Times (and now head of news at the BBC), at the time told Norfolk to focus exclusively on the child sex abuse story for as long as it took to ensure that justice was served. What Norfolk discovered along the way worried him as much as the crime itself.
After publishing a story about the plight of a 12-year-old girl from Rotherham, England, Norfolk received a bundle of confidential police and social services files showing that the authorities had known for more than a decade what was going on. As he later told the audience at the British Journalism Awards ceremony in December 2014, “They knew the names of the men, the girls, and the places they were taken. They had effectively sat back and done almost nothing to stop it.”
After The Times published a story based on the leaked documents, Norfolk recalled, “I thought those at the top of each organization would be so horrified that they would immediately seek to establish what could have gone so terribly wrong. Instead, they seemed interested only in discovering how we got hold of the documents. The council had already threatened High Court action to block an earlier story. Now it demanded a criminal inquiry into the leak. It also hired a firm of solicitors to expose the ‘security breach.'”
As Norfolk carried on with his digging, Rotherham authorities eventually did feel compelled to commission a public inquiry into the crimes, which in August 2014 reported finding that at least 1,400 children had been abused over a 12-year period and that official failings had been “blatant.”
Norfolk’s coverage earned him the Orwell Prize for investigative journalism, the Paul Foot prize for campaigning journalism, and the British Journalism Awards’ top prize, Journalist of the Year.
The night after Norfolk was presented with the BJA award, another group gathered to consider the state of British journalism. There, at the second Leveson Anniversary Lecture, organized by Article 19 and the Media Standards Trust, an audience listened to a Labour member of Parliament accuse owners and editors of “the big papers” of propagating the myth that their journalism served the public good by holding the powerful to account.
“They have operated like a mafia, intimidating here, bribing there, terminating careers and rewarding their most loyal operatives and toadies,” said Labour MP Tom Watson. “For years they could fix any legislation that affected them, in a way that no other industry could. But it didn’t stop there. Their influence was so great that for many, it became impossible to know who was really running the country.”
Naming the proprietors of the Sun, Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star, Daily Telegraph,and Daily Mirror and their Sunday stablemates (omitting only the Guardian, Independent, and Financial Times from his attack) and addressing their editors, Watson declared:
“Where there is a threat to freedom it comes from you. You have shown again and again that you don’t care about freedom of expression.
“You have never told the truth about your wrongdoings and you do all you can to suppress the reporting of them.”
Watson continued: “You don’t care about the freedom of journalists to report on systematic intrusion into all our lives by the security services … You don’t care about the freedom that ordinary British people should enjoy from cruel treatment by your employees … The only freedom you care about is your own, to do exactly what you like, without consequences.”
The event at which Watson spoke was held to mark the publication of Sir Brian Leveson’s report on his inquiry into the press, which was established in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal of 2011.
In 2012 Watson co-authored a book about the hacking saga, Dial M for Murdoch. His Leveson Lecture audience included members of the Hacked Off group (many of whom had their voicemail messages intercepted by News of the World journalists), which has since campaigned for tougher press regulation.
Watson told them that, in his view, a small group of media moguls, executives, and senior journalists had become “the power in this country.”
Many journalists disagree and see their profession as besieged in the U.K., with police, Parliament, pressure groups, public relations people, and even publishers undermining their ability to report.
Roy Greenslade, a former Daily Mirror editor who is now a lecturer and commentator, observed: “There is a growing feeling that the press has become too powerful, which is strange because it is actually weaker than it has been at any time in its history.”
The fallout from the Guardian‘s investigation into phone hacking includes:
- The closure of News of the World
- Scrutiny of the British Press in a £5 million public inquiry led by High Court Judge Sir Brian Leveson
- The arrest of more than 60 journalists, jailing of four, and disruption of others’ work and personal lives as these journalists were kept on police bail for months or years and then cleared of any wrongdoing without ever appearing in court
- The disbanding of the Press Complaints Commission, widely criticized for failing to address the excesses of Fleet Street, as the U.K.’s national newspapers are still collectively known
- Establishment of a royal charter by Parliament to oversee regulation of the press–the first state intervention in more than 300 years
These developments are all directly linked to the hacking scandal, and many have public support.
Yet there have also been less overt and potentially more dangerous assaults on press freedom in the U.K.
The two most worrying trends are the use of anti-terrorism legislation to spy on journalists’ phone and email records (something that is happening in many countries and which, among other things, enables authorities to discover sources) and the increasing use of public relations staff to hamper journalists’ efforts to build direct relationships with people in authority.
In a speech to the newsvendors’ charity NewstrAid in October 2014, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre also identified threats from Europe “in the grizzly shape of the right to be forgotten” [an EU ruling that has led Google to remove certain details, including criminal convictions, from search results] and threats “to the sanctity of our content by the undermining of copyright protection.” Dacre also predicted a “defamation derby for all those who want to gag or punish the press” as a result of the royal charter.
Though no regulator has emerged to seek recognition under the charter, if one appears, any news organization that declines to accept its authority and inherent arbitration service will put itself at risk of having to pay both parties’ costs in any dispute that goes to court–even if the news organization wins the case, according to the charter.
When Dacre’s speech was published after the event, press critics were quick to note that he presides over the U.K.’s most-complained-about and most-censured news organization. Hacked Off–which Dacre characterized as “a tiny, unrepresentative pressure group run by zealots, priapic so-called celebrities, and small-town academics [who had] united to cast the debate as a biblical fight to the death between good and evil, with the press cast in the role of the devil”–produced a point-by-point rebuttal.
Others noted the Mail‘s antipathy to the Guardian: After the phone-hacking trial of former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and former News of the World Managing Editor Andy Coulson, the Mail published an essay casting the man behind the paper’s investigation as “the man who did for the British Press,” and it has called Edward Snowden a traitor for his revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), published in the U.K. in the Guardian.
For most British journalists, the greatest concern is the collapse of trust between the police and the press at both the local and national levels.
In Greenslade’s view, “We are seeing played out in front of our eyes an amazing war between police and journalists.”
Greenslade attributed the antipathy to police embarrassment over a series of blunders, including:
- The perfunctory investigation of initial phone-hacking allegations at the News of the World in 2005
- The exposure of police lies, which sought to blame unruly football fans rather than police misjudgment for the deaths of 96 spectators in the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster
- The flawed investigation of the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in South London, after which a public inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan Police were guilty of institutional racism, though the decision failed to prevent further cover-ups or attempts to smear Lawrence’s family (his mother now sits in the House of Lords) and a new independent investigation is now under way
- The shooting of an unarmed Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, on an Underground train after the 7/7 Al-Qaeda bombings in London in 2005
- The death of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who suffered a heart attack after he was struck by a policeman and pushed to the ground during G20 protests in London in 2009–video footage showed that Tomlinson had been walking down the road with his hands in his pockets and had nothing to do with the protests when he was assaulted
Relentless coverage of such episodes, most of them at the hands of London’s Metropolitan Police, put the police on the defensive and emboldened some to act against journalists. As a result, gone are the days when the desk sergeant showed his daybook to a reporter who dropped by the police station for a cup of coffee and a chat each morning. Information is now funneled through PR people, which makes developing a rapport with contacts increasingly difficult.
The trade magazine Press Gazette reported recently that 1,500 communications staff were employed across 20 central government departments, and parish councillors–the lowest tier of British democracy, who represent groups of villagers–have been told not to talk to reporters without clearing their comments with the council clerk. People who serve in the armed forces must report all encounters with journalists, even if they are family or friends in a social setting.
In the viewof Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, “PRs’ stopping journalists having healthy relationships with all sorts of people is infantile. We’re in a weird, warped place where police regard an officer speaking to a journalist without permission as a serious crime. But if the police and journalists are at war, it’s a bigger problem for the police than the press, because a frosty relationship doesn’t help them to get their information out.”
The march of the PRs, as public relations workers are known in the U.K., means that covert contacts and whistleblowers have become even more important to journalists researching public interest stories. That, in turn, makes the protection of those sources more vital, which is where the police use of anti-terrorism legislation to spy on journalists’ phone records and identify their sources comes into play.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), passed in 2000 to combat perceived terrorism and other threats, allows public bodies to conduct surveillance and access computer and telephone records in the interest of national security or to prevent serious crime. But soon after RIPA went into effect it began to be abused, with local councils spying on families for trivial reasons, such as to determine whether they put their trash out on the right day. The rules were tightened so a magistrate had to authorize any council use of the powers, but police still needed only to approach a senior officer to get permission.
Official statistics show that about half-a-million applications a year are made to access data under RIPA, and even media critics have expressed concern that journalists are being targeted. Hacked Off, which has fought the press over phone hacking through the Leveson inquiry and over the establishment of a new regulator, is on the same side as journalists in calling for changes to the law.
George Brock, former head of the journalism department at City University in London, contends that the law is invasive even if the police are only looking at calls made. “This underlines the importance of metadata,” he said. “When Edward Snowden started releasing material showing the scale of NSA and GCHQ [the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters] surveillance, the line from the authorities was, ‘We’re not reading emails or listening to calls. We’re looking at metadata.’ Well, you can learn a hell of a lot about a person–and their sources–if you know who they’re talking to, when, and how often.”
Brock is a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, known as BIJ, which in August 2014 submitted a case to the European Court in Strasbourg arguing that the use of RIPA to monitor journalists’ phone calls was contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression. The action coincided with CPJ’s “right to report” petition urging U.S. President Barack Obama to ban the surveillance of journalists and the hacking of their computers.
The two most notorious examples of the way the act has been used relate to political stories in the Sun and the Mail on Sunday.
Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun‘s political editor, broke a story about a senior government minister accused of swearing at police officers who refused to allow him to ride his bicycle through the main gates at the end of Downing Street rather than use the pedestrian entrance. Andrew Mitchell was eventually forced to resign over the incident and has since lost a libel action against the Sun that is expected to cost him £3 million (about $4.5 million). Afterward, the Metropolitan Police went through Newton Dunn’s phone records to discover who had leaked the story.
As a result, three officers were sacked for gross misconduct, although Crown Prosecution Service decided that they should not be charged because there was a public interest in the events being made known. A fourth officer was jailed for giving a dishonest account of the incident, having lied about witnessing it.
The whistleblower, former Police Constable Jim Glanville, who now works as a car salesman, told the Sun that the case had cost him his career and his marriage and had left him £13,000 (about $20,000) in debt but that he had no regrets. “I’d do it again tomorrow,” he said. “I thought the public had a right to know how someone that senior in the government behaved.”
In the case of the Mail on Sunday, Kent police went through phone records of the news desk and a freelance reporter to find the source of a story about Energy Secretary Chris Huhne having persuaded his wife to take his speeding penalty so he would not lose his driver’s license. The checks were made and the results passed to prosecution lawyers despite a judge ruling that the newspaper’s sources should not be disclosed. The minister, his wife, and the source–a judge who eventually was found to have lied to the police–all ended up in jail.
After the Newton Dunn disclosure, the Press Gazette began campaigning for the law to be changed so a judge had to give permission for RIPA to be used.
The Press Gazette‘s Dominic Ponsford also sent freedom of information requests to every police force in the country, asking about its use of RIPA. Most refused to say. The interception of communications commissioner, who oversees data protection and freedom of information, has issued similar requests as part of an investigation into the use of the act and expects to report early in 2015.
Politicians of all parties have backed the Press Gazette‘s campaign, and the Home Office indicated in October 2014 that the code would be changed by Christmas. It announced in December, however, that the only alteration would be the requirement for police to note when checks were made on the phone or email records of journalists, lawyers, doctors, MPs, or the clergy. Senior police officers would still be able to approve a check without outside authority.
Ponsford had wanted a journalist’s relationship with a source to be classed in a special category regarding confidentiality so it would be treated in the same way as relationships between solicitor and client or patient and doctor, but the proposed adjustment would not give the records that privilege.
“Journalists’ having their privacy invaded isn’t the worst horror in the country,” Ponsford said. “People have little sympathy with journalists after the News of the World listened to people’s voicemails. But our concern is not for the journalist but for the sources.
“If police can look at journalists’ phone records secretly and at will, it puts all sources and whistleblowers at risk. Without those there can be no investigative journalism, and without investigative journalism there will be more corruption and wrongdoing in public institutions.”
Others are less convinced about making special provisions for journalists, who are, after all, supposed to have the same rights and responsibilities as any citizen. Brock prefers the idea of a better and stronger protection of the public interest. “I’m in favor of legally protecting disclosures which can be judged in the public interest because laws organized around that principle don’t get into the complication of trying to establish who’s a journalist and who isn’t,” he said.
Brock posed the question of whether David Miranda, who was detained at Heathrow while carrying Snowden’s NSA material to his partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald, could be regarded as having been involved in a journalistic endeavor.
Gavin Millar, the barrister who is leading the Bureau of Investigative Journalism case in Strasbourg, is in favor of a shield law for journalists of the kind seen in some U.S. states. He told the Society of Editors conference in November 2014, “We need a free-standing law that protects confidential information and confidential sources and that judges and law enforcement agencies cannot bypass or miss because it is sitting there in front of their faces in black and white.”
Millar told the Society of Editors that police had been abusing surveillance powers since 2008, when Sally Murrer of the Milton Keynes Citizen was charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office after police bugged her conversations with a detective sergeant with whom she was close.
The officer was suspected of passing confidential information to her, and she was accused of paying him for it. The case was thrown out when it came to court.
Papers relating to the authorization for the bugging did not mention that Murrer was a journalist or whether the intention was to identify a source. “This was a startling omission because the right of the journalist to protect the identity of such a source is strongly protected in our law and in European human rights law,” Millar told the Society of Editors, according to a transcript. “It can only be overridden if a judge decides that there is an even more important public interest requiring the source to be identified–and that the evidence being sought cannot be obtained in some other way. Examples of such an overriding public interest might be the need fully to investigate terrorism or serious organized crime.”
Millar said that the case should have caused alarm, but the situation has in fact worsened since. He also noted that the charge against Murrer–misconduct in a public office–was a novel one against a journalist. Previous unsuccessful attempts to prosecute journalists in similar situations had alleged that the journalist had acted corruptly, as defined by a 1906 statute. Misconduct in a public office was a vague charge based on a very old common-law offense without the clear elements of modern statutory criminal legislation, he said.
The charge is, however, now being used routinely against journalists suspected of making illegal payments to contacts who work in the public sector.
The most obvious front in the conflict between journalists and the police has been the clutch of investigations arising from the phone-hacking saga and a series of prosecutions for historic alleged offenses.
In 2006 a News of the World reporter and a private investigator were jailed for hacking into Prince William’s voice mail. The paper’s owner, News International–which also owns the Sun, Times, and Sunday Times–insisted that this was a case of one “rogue reporter,” and Scotland Yard officers charged with investigating any wider criminality accepted the assurance.
Greenslade saw the force’s embarrassment over its failure to probe more deeply as one explanation for the scale of the investigations started after the scandal blew open five years later, when Nick Davies of the Guardian reported that the News of the World had intercepted the voice mails of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered.
That disclosure caused mayhem. The police were embarrassed, as were the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, and Prime Minister David Cameron, who had installed the News of the World‘s former editor Coulson in 10 Downing Street as his director of communications.
In response, the prime minister ordered the Leveson inquiry; afterward, the Metropolitan Police commissioner–Britain’s most senior police officer–resigned. Murdoch closed the News of the World.
News Corporation’s bid to buy British Sky Broadcasting (known as BSkyB) was then withdrawn, and in New York the stock value of News International’s parent company, News Corp., plummeted. Company lawyers were concerned that the scandal would cross the Atlantic and lead to corporate charges that would threaten the entire business. To appease them, a “management standards committee” was set up at News International’s Wapping headquarters, and millions of documents were handed over to the police. As Dominic Ponsford put it, the foot soldiers were “thrown to the wolves” while Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World and the Sun who had risen to become chief executive, was left with an £11 million (about $16.7 million) payoff.
Fueled by the News International dossier, police operations spawned by the scandal combined to become Britain’s biggest criminal investigation yet. Police accounts put the cost to the taxpayer at more than £40 million (about $60 million), and even now, three years after the closure of the News of the World, there are still a hundred officers working on the inquiries full time. Sixty-four journalists have been arrested and more than 100 questioned “under caution”–but not arrested–by officers working on operations known as Weeting (regarding phone hacking), Elveden (paying public officials) and Tuleta (computer hacking).
In August 2014, Coulson was jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of conspiracy to intercept voicemails. Three senior journalists were given shorter sentences; two others and a private investigator were given suspended sentences. Brooks was found not guilty of all charges, as were her husband, secretary, security chief, and former News of the World managing editor, Stuart Kuttner.
Elveden prosecutions have tended to involve the same charge that Sally Murrer faced: aiding and abetting or conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office. To date, only one journalist–a News of the World staffer who, for legal reasons, cannot be named–has been convicted of this offense, for paying a prison officer for snippets about an inmate who killed a toddler when he was 10 years old. A number of police, prison officers, and soldiers have, however, been jailed for accepting money from journalists.
In the U.S., paying for stories is generally regarded as taboo, but in Britain there had been a long tradition of rewarding contacts for tips with a drink, tickets to a sporting event, or hard cash. Though the Bribery Act of 2010 changed the landscape, few journalists previously had any idea that it was against the law to pay whistleblowers for information. Even the journalist’s legal bible, Essential Law for Journalists,does not mention thatpaying officials for stories is illegal, though it specifically states that witnesses in trials and criminals should not be paid.
At the time of this writing, six Sun journalists were on trial over alleged payments to officials. Another, the paper’s former Whitehall editor, Clodagh Hartley, was found not guilty in a separate trial in which the judge told the jury that the key point it had to decide was whether Hartley had been acting in the public interest when she paid a tax official for stories that included government budget leaks.
Hartley was the second journalist to be acquitted by a jury on a charge of misconduct in public office. The first, from the Daily Star, was cleared in the trial relating to the child killer. A third journalist, Nick Parker of the Sun, was also found not guilty on misconduct charges related to paying a policeman for tips but was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence for handling a stolen mobile phone that belonged to a Labour MP. Parker had agreed to pay the man who gave him the phone £10,000 (about $15,000) if its contents produced a story, but he found nothing of use to him and handed the phone to the police the next day.
Fourteen more journalists were awaiting trial on misconduct charges, and a 15th was to be retried after a jury could not decide on his case, which involved a £500 (about $750) payment to a policeman. All of these alleged offenses date to before the hacking scandal.
Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the Sun, has been forthright in his condemnation of the police investigations, which he and many others regard as disproportionate. (This is not a view shared by Hacked Off, which takes the position that some in the press are irresponsible and should be reined in.)
“Their alleged crimes amount to writing or paying for stories the authorities wanted kept under wraps,” Kavanagh wrote. “The cost to taxpayers is stupendous …The cost in wrecked private and professional lives is beyond calculation. And for what? The stories were all true. They were stood up. Nobody in the prison service, health service or HM Treasury ever complained to the police or to the newspapers involved. There were no leak inquiries.”
Just as the use of RIPA to spy on journalists revealed the extent to which ordinary people are being put under surveillance, so the treatment of the journalists arrested in the post-hacking police operations has exposed how thousands of lives are left in limbo while police and prosecutors decide whether to bring them before the courts.
Nick Parker, whose trial ended on December 9, 2014, was first arrested and suspended from work on February 11, 2012. Clodagh Hartley, who was acquitted on November 26, 2014, was arrested on May 25, 2012. She was kept on police bail for a year before being charged and then had to wait a further 18 months before her trial started. She was unable to work or travel abroad and has since said that she will not return to journalism.
This long gestation period–which the police put down to spending cuts and lack of resources–has been common in the cases of journalists accused of hacking or paying officials. Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of the News of the World who worked as a PR consultant for the Metropolitan Police, was arrested on suspicion of phone hacking in July 2011–the month the Milly Dowler story broke and the paper was closed. He was on police bail until February 2013, when he was told that no action would be taken against him. This year he was rearrested and is now awaiting trial, three and a half years after his initial arrest.
Many of the journalists arrested in the Weeting, Elveden, and Tuleta operations were cleared after months on police bail. Four from the Mirror group–including two who were serving Sunday newspaper editors–are still in limbo 21 months after their arrests.
RIPA and the hacking investigations have been the toughest battles in the conflict between journalists and police, but there have also been cases involving alleged secret databases, “excess phone data,” and harassment orders.
Half a dozen journalists are taking the Metropolitan Police to court after discovering that its “domestic extremists” database contains more than 2,000 references to journalists, logging their professional activities, their appearances, and such details as their families’ medical histories. The six, five of whom have previously won apologies or compensation from the police for assault or unlawful searches while they were doing their jobs, want the files destroyed.
The chief executive of News UK (formerly News International) has meanwhile protested to Vodafone and the police after the discovery that more than 1,750 mobile phone records of journalists, lawyers, and secretarial staff had been passed to police in error. The police had sought one reporter’s record as part of an investigation, and Vodafone mistakenly sent the entire database, covering almost anyone who owned one of the company’s phones between 2005 and 2007.
The Metropolitan Police transferred the material to CDs, made a spreadsheet, and checked on five other journalists before reporting that it had been given “excess data” and surrendering the records–seven months after Vodafone first noticed the error and asked for their return.
Ponsford of the Press Gazette compares this with the case of Nick Parker: “The reporter has a look at the phone, hands it in the next day, doesn’t write a story–and ends up in court.” Speaking at the BJA awards, Andrew Norfolk mourned the change of environment: “Senior officers you once had a relationship with based on what you thought was mutual trust and respect are suddenly too scared to speak to you, or perhaps it’s not that. They’ve just got so much on, the poor dears: planning your arrest, wading through your phone records–I think it’s 1,700 phones from my company alone.”
In November 2014, a former UK Independence Party press officer, Jasna Badzak, was sent a cease-and-desist notice by the Metropolitan Police, alleging that she had harassed another former party worker “by providing information to reporter Glen Owen [of The Mail on Sunday] of a false nature” that had resulted in the “victim being subjected to numerous phone calls and e-mails.” Owen had made one phone call and sent three emails to the complainant to check on information given to him by an entirely different source.
Earlier in the year, Gareth Davies, a London newspaper reporter, was served with a similar notice by three policemen from the Metropolitan Police who visited the Croydon Advertiser office. It required him to stop “harassing” a woman who had complained that he had contacted her by Twitter and email to ask her about allegations made against her. She was subsequently jailed for 30 months for a £230,000 ($360,000) fraud, but the harassment notice was not rescinded.
On December 8, 2014, The Sun published a story about a Conservative MP playing Candy Crush Saga on his iPad during a Commons committee meeting discussing pensions. The MP, Nigel Mills, apologized and will face no further action, but the House of Commons ordered an investigation to find out who took the incriminating photograph, which was published on the paper’s front page.
The Press Gazette has noted a growing number of internal leak investigations by public authorities. In October 2014 it reported that the Metropolitan Police had conducted 300 such inquiries, most of them involving the use of RIPA, during the previous five years–not all relating to the disclosure of information to the press. Five central government departments had held 60 leak investigations during the same period.
In a succession of published statements after the daughter of an elderly patient exposed lethal failings at her local hospital in Mid-Staffordshire, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised protection for whistleblowers. Julie Bailey, the patient’s daughter, was quoted saying that she was threatened and eventually felt compelled to move, yet her persistence led to a public inquiry that found that as many as 1,200 patients may have died needlessly because of the poor treatment and neglect at the hospital.
Still, stories continue to emerge of whistleblowers being disciplined, sacked for misconduct, or hounded out of their jobs. As the MP-Candy Crush Saga story and Andrew Norfolk’s experience demonstrate, the default response is often to order an investigation into who let the cat out of the bag rather to investigate the incident itself.
The day after its Candy Crush story broke, the Sun ran a lead article that noted, “This is Britain since the Leveson Inquiry, that declaration of war on the press by the elite we are here to hold to account.
“Leveson’s biased witch-hunt empowered them to try to stop the press revealing inconvenient truths the public has a right to know,” the article continued.
“One MP playing Candy Crush isn’t the biggest scandal ever–and we welcome that Mr Mills had the good grace to own up and swiftly apologise. The authorities’ reaction, though, is of graver significance.”
In his acceptance speech at the British Journalism Awards, Norfolk said that Leveson had invited newspapers to submit their best examples of public interest journalism to his inquiry. In Norfolk’s view, the final report had rightly condemned much that was wrong in the world of newspapers and had significantly contributed to public contempt for the entire profession.
The examples of public interest journalism were “buried in a tiny section of the 2,000-page report labelled good practice–Sir Brian’s fleeting concession to the possibility that not everything we do as journalists is sleazy and wrong,” Norfolk said. He added, “The judge said that he had omitted one or two because they were not without controversy.”
“I wish he were here tonight,” Norfolk said, “because I would like to have told him, ‘You know, Brian, sometimes it’s the uncomfortable truths, those not without controversy, that are the most important for a journalist to tell, even if they cause discomfort to a High Court judge, because they’re so often the stories–like Rotherham–that those in authority least want us to reveal.'”
In Norfolk’s view, “A free society needs an unshackled press. For years there were people in Rotherham, desperately concerned about what was happening, who tried their best to raise the alarm. Frontline youth workers told their bosses, parents pleaded with police.
“Reports were written, seminars held, letters sent to chief constables, MPs, and government departments. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. When all else failed, someone very brave decided to put their trust in our derided profession. And finally the truth came out.
“As requested, The Times sent five stories to the Leveson inquiry,” Norfolk said. “He accepted four of them. All but one. And, you know, I really am quite proud to be able to stand here this evening and say: ‘Guess which one he chose to discard?'”
Liz Gerard, a former senior editor at London’s The Times, writes and edits the journalism website SubScribe.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected in the 35th paragraph to reflect the nature of perceived threats that led to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA); the 45th paragraph to correct the title of the interception of communications commissioner; the 64th paragraph to reflect currency exchange rates; and the 83rd paragraph to correct the size of the fraud perpetuated by the complainant against Gareth Davies.