After the acquittal of a number of journalists accused of corrupting public officials and the dropping of charges against others, the corporate national press (Sun, Times, Mail, Telegraph, Mirror and others) has launched one of its shameless campaigns of disinformation.
Here are 10 myths they want you to believe.
MYTH 1. The Metropolitan Police Operation Elveden, investigating corruption, and the subsequent prosecutions, have been a failure.
The facts. Elveden has resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 21 public officials for ‘misconduct in public office’ – a serious offence involving in almost all cases the sale of information held in trust for the public. Those convicted include police officers, prison workers, health workers and a Ministry of Defence official. Wrongdoers have been punished and the need for probity in the public service has been upheld.
Elveden also produced evidence that has so far led to the trial of 22 journalists. Of these, 13 have been acquitted and in seven cases juries failed to reach a verdict. In five of those cases the CPS has decided not to seek a re-trial so the defendants walked free. Two journalists were convicted by a jury but one of those convictions has been quashed because of a misdirection by the trial judge and the other is also likely to be quashed for the same reason. Charges have been brought against another four journalists. One pleaded guilty, two have had charges dropped and one still faces trial.
These outcomes were determined, not by the police or by the Crown Prosecution Service, but by due process of law (see below) and with all proper safeguards operating.
MYTH 2. It was proved in court that newspapers did not pay public officials for information.
The facts. At their trials, many of the journalists admitted or did not dispute that they paid public officials for information – or else were involved in the process that led to them being paid.
The key question addressed by the juries was therefore not, in most cases, whether payments were made. Instead the questions were more technical, notably whether the journalists understood that the officials were breaking the law by accepting payment.
MYTH 3. Juries found that journalists were justified in bribing officials because they were pursuing stories in the public interest.
The facts. No such finding has been made. Some defendants claimed they had been serving the public interest – though that was rarely their only argument – and it is possible that some juries took that view. But the truth is that we have no way of knowing which of the defence arguments the juries found persuasive. Certainly the verdicts themselves did not amount to a declaration that the journalists had acted in the public interest.
These are some of the stories for which payments were made: that George Michael wept when in prison; that an army civilian worker had an affair (this turned out to be untrue); that Prince William suffered blisters in army training. A payment of £5,000 was made for a picture of Prince William in a bikini.
MYTH 4. Payments by journalists were small and no harm was done.
The facts. A Ministry of Defence official received £100,000 and a prison officer received £40,000 – not small sums for public servants. As for harm: highly confidential information about an alleged rape victim changed hands; the prison officer sold information about a person in witness protection; distress was caused to the family of a soldier whose death in action was reported prematurely as a result of payment.
MYTH 5. The CPS is engaged in a witch-hunt against journalists.
The facts. Normal procedures were followed and those procedures are designed to protect defendants from unfair prosecution. The CPS, an independent body, followed published guidelines in deciding that the evidence was sufficient to put before a jury. When lawyers for some journalist defendants exercised their right to challenge the CPS view in court the independent judge agreed with the CPS in every case and so the trials went ahead.
Many public officials were also on trial, yet the CPS has not been accused of a witch-hunt against them. The CPS took the view that juries should decide on the guilt or otherwise not only of those who received payments, but also of most those who made payments. There were several cases where journalists who had been questioned or arrested were not charged.
Most of the evidence for these prosecutions was spontaneously provided to Operation Elveden by the company that employs most of the journalists – News International, now News UK. Once this had been done the police and the CPS were obliged to take action.
MYTH 6. Police victimised the journalists who were charged.
The facts. No serious case has been made that the journalists who were charged suffered experiences that were significantly different from, or worse than, the experiences of many other defendants.
They and their families undoubtedly endured great stress and anxiety, but that happens in most cases where people are charged with crimes – including, regrettably but inevitably, cases where in the end the defendants are cleared. Our prosecution system is slow-moving and does not have a 100 per cent conviction rate (that is usually a sign of a tyranny), and the painful consequence is that those who are acquitted go through an ordeal.
Rich, powerful newspaper corporations don’t normally care about this. Most are habitually vindictive when it comes to criminal justice and so are happy for people to suffer in this way, whether they turn out to be guilty or innocent. It is hypocritical for these papers to complain only when the suspects are their own journalists.
MYTH 7. The people running the Sun bear no responsibility.
The facts. Many journalist defendants testified that managers and editors knew what was going on. Rebekah Brooks, while editor of the Sun, personally approved cash payments of tens of thousands of pounds, including those for which an MoD official was later jailed – though at her trial Brooks said she did not know the money was going to a public official.
In 2003 Brooks told MPs ‘We have paid the police for information in the past.’ Rupert Murdoch told Sun staff in 2013: ‘We’re talking about payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years.’
Again and again defence witnesses asserted that newspaper managements did not instruct journalists properly in the law. One News UK journalist testified that company lawyers approved payments to public officials, provided it was the officials who had made the first approach.
And, to repeat, it was the company management that gave the key evidence used in these trials to the police.
MYTH 8. The prosecutions were a threat to free speech.
The facts. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press in this country do not depend upon journalists having a professional right to pay public servants for information. No such right exists and if such payments are ever made it is proper that the journalists should – at the very least – face close scrutiny. That is what has happened.
Nor can a reasonable case be made that these prosecutions will deter whistleblowers from revealing important information in the public interest, chiefly because whistleblowers do not usually require payment for their information. By definition they are motivated by public spirit rather than greed.
Most newspaper readers would surely expect journalists to engage in exposing corrupt public officials who take payments, rather than in making the payments themselves.
MYTH 9. The acquittals clear the way for ‘business as usual’ for journalists in terms of paying public officials.
The facts. Because of the dates on which the payments were made, these cases were prosecuted under the common law offence of ‘conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office’, but this was superseded by the Bribery Act 2010. Under this law a person who pays someone money to breach their position of trust – whether to a public body or a private employer – is guilty of the offence of bribery. The publishers of the Sun say they have changed their guidelines as a result.
MYTH 10. These prosecutions are part of a pattern of oppression of the press related to the Leveson Inquiry and efforts to reform press self-regulation.
The facts. The prosecutions are closely related to the scandal of phone-hacking, in which nine journalists working for two of the country’s biggest newspaper groups have so far been convicted. When that scandal came to light it became clear that, for years and perhaps decades, big corporate newspapers had behaved as though they were above the law – to the great cost of ordinary citizens who were lied about and intruded upon.
Leveson did not propose the oppression of the press but instead recommended ways of making journalism in Britain freer to do its job in the public interest. Under Leveson’s proposals there would be far less room for political interference in the press, while investigative journalists would enjoy greater freedom from libel bullying by rich and powerful institutions.
Given the undisputed failure of press regulation, Leveson also called for news publishers to be accountable to a totally independent self-regulator if they breached their code of conduct. The same companies that are now propagating myths about the corruption cases have resisted that because they want to continue to be able to abuse and bully members of the public with impunity.
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author