Sun political editor Harry Cole has pledged “we will keep fighting on” amid a “continuing erosion of journalistic rights”.
Cole made the comments after The Sun picked up the Scoop of the Year prize at the British Journalism Awards on Wednesday night for revealing then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s office affair with aide Gina Coladangelo while Covid-19 restrictions were in place.
Cole collected the award alongside Sun head of news Alex Goss and executive news editor Ben O’Driscoll.
Cole told Press Gazette the team were “really happy a tabloid was recognised” amid a wide range of competitors – the shortlist included Tortoise Media, The Times, Daily Mail, the FT, The Guardian and ITV News. “The tabloids deliver the scoops they need to stay consistently one step ahead of the competition,” he said.
But he warned the aftermath of the Hancock scoop had demonstrated an ongoing “systematic decay of freedom of the press”.
The Information Commissioner’s Office raided the homes of two suspected whistleblowers in the case who may have leaked the CCTV footage of Hancock and Coladangelo’s incriminating office snog.
Cole said The Sun also witnessed threats from government officials and even heard accusations of involvement by Chinese and Russian agents and spies.
“Everyone in this room, whether they read The Sun or not, should know that this has a chilling effect on the freedom of the press and we are really glad that public interest journalism is recognised in this way,” he said.
Cole said the Hancock story was a “really important scoop for us”, adding: “We pride ourselves on our reputation as protectors of free speech and democracy.
“There are sometimes stories you write that you have to make a public interest argument for. It was so clearly and obviously in the public interest we just knew it was a story that was going to leave everyone in our trail. As a journalist there’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve got one of those in the bag.”
As well as the ICO investigation, Cole pointed to the threat posed by proposed reform to the Official Secrets Act which could see journalists treated like spies for reporting on matters of public interest.
He also criticised “judicial-led challenges on privacy” which, since the Mail on Sunday’s latest defeat to Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, saw Justice Secretary Dominic Raab vow to correct a “drift towards continental-style privacy laws”.
Cole described a “continuing erosion of journalistic rights” and said: “We will keep fighting on and we hope everyone will keep fighting with us.”
Sun editor Victoria Newton has previously said she would rather go to jail than give up the paper’s Hancock source, and vowed to fight in court if the authorities asked The Sun for any information. Newton has also said her first thoughts upon hearing the tip from the newsdesk were “bloody hell, what a story, it can’t be true”.
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