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July 20, 2012

And then they came for me…the unprecedented wave of journalist arrests has become a threat to all of us

By Dominic Ponsford1

To paraphrase Martin Neimoller, first they came for the News International journalists and I said nothing – because I hated Rupert Murdoch.

Then they came for the Mirror journalists, and I said nothing – because those red-top hacks are all the same.

Then they came for the Express Newspapers journalists…Well you get the picture.

More than a year on from the launch of the police inquiries into allegations of phone-hacking, corruption and computer-hacking, we are in a pretty scary place in the UK.

For eight of the nine years I have worked at Press Gazette, the arrest of a journalist in the course of their work has been an extraordinarily rare occurrence in the UK. Today, it is commonplace.

In previous years, editors and publishers would have shouted from the rooftops at the sight of police bids to disclose sources and close down unofficial leaks of information by use of draconian powers. Today, at News International anyway, the publishers are not just mute – but complicit in the arrests of journalists and the disclosure of sources.

So far, 21 journalists have had their careers and lives devastated by being arrested and bailed as part of the Elveden bribes inquiry.

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Yesterday, Sun news reporter Rhodri Phillips was dragged from his bed at 6.30am in front of his family to answer questions about “handling stolen property”. Sources at the paper say that his alleged “crime” was to deal with a tipster who handed in an MP’s lost mobile phone.

As far as I can tell, and I have spoken to some well-placed sources about this, in many cases the journalists dealt with by the Elveden investigation weren’t doing anything that tabloid journalists haven’t done since time immemorial. They were paying sources for stories.

Is it a bribe to pay a public employee for information? If so, why aren’t London Major Boris Johnson and editor of the Daily Telegraph Tony Gallagher thrown in prison? Johnson is a public official who is paid £250,000 a year to divulge information to the readers of the Daily Telegraph.

The journalists arrested as part of the Elveden probe weren’t lining their own pockets like the loathsome bankers. They were doing their jobs as commissioned by their superiors. Seeking the truth and, where necessary, paying tipsters in order to do this.

Most journalists would recognise that paying cops gets into dicey territory. But did anyone realise that all public officials were covered by the obscure and little-used Prevention of Corruption Act 1906?

As the notorious Sally Murrer case showed, the police are ruthless and strong-handed when it comes to closing off unofficial leaks of information.

At some stage soon, before a whole generation of journalists are criminalised, politicians are going to need to make a choice. Do we want to encourage a robust, probing and risk-taking national press which holds the public sector to account?

Or would we rather have a legion of placid copy-takers on Fleet Street, meticulous in their adherence to the letter and spirit of the law and happy to simply take down the official story from the PR officers who vastly outnumber them.

In any real public interest story, journalists should be safe from prosecution even if they have bent the rules and spread around some cash to get to the truth. But before that public interest test can be weighed by the Crown Prosecution Service, the events of the last year show that you must first be dragged from your bed at 6am in the morning, questioned in a cell for several hours and then subjected to a year or more under police bail during which time your professional reputation is torn to shreds.

What sane journalist now is going to take that risk?


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