If the basic principle of journalism is disclosure of information for the public interest, then the Sun’s famous safe is anti-journalism – non disclosure for private gain.
At a trial in Kingston two years ago of several senior Sun journalists over allegations of payments to public officials, the former deputy editor of the country’s best selling newspaper, Ben O’Driscoll, made an interesting admission on oath:
“At the time I was there, there was an enormous safe, about 7ft high, like something out of a Wild West film, with big metal handles”, O’Driscoll explained to the court in Kingston. “It was full of 30 years of stories that are confidential and did not pass the public interest test. They remained there in that safe, and what’s in there is quite eye-popping, I have to say.”
O’Driscoll claimed MPs and celebrities featured in the material, and added: “If you were to publish everything in that safe, I think The Sun’s circulation figures would go upwards.”
But if this material is not held for publication, what is it kept for?
What’s in the Black Museum?
Among Fleet Street hacks the Sun vault – known as the ‘black museum’ – has long been the subject of lurid speculation.
Rumours range of photos of members of the Royal family naked to celebrities engaging in sex acts with animals. According to sources the photos of Queen Elisabeth as a child raising the Nazi salute have been held in the Sun safe for years. (Why Murdoch decided to publish them last year is another question – perhaps the vault is being cleared?).
But there’s also a much more authoritative account.
When she took over the editorship of the Sun in 2003, Rebekah Brooks would openly talk to friends about the scandals contained in the vault. Sources describe the names she mentioned as ‘Yewtree’ type material.
So far from ‘not being in the public interest’ does the Sun vault actually contain evidence of potential crimes?
Former News of the World journalist Graham Johnson claimed in his racy and revealing book Hack that News International had deliberately suppressed evidence that author and futurist Arthur C Clarke was a paedophile because he was a friend of the proprietor. As Johnson told the Independent the News UK journalist was told:
“Because Arthur C Clarke was a mate of Rupert Murdoch, the editor wasn’t having any of it and despite Roger getting a lot of evidence that Clarke was a paedophile they wouldn’t publish it.”
The editor at the time denies this claim. But this is not the first time that Murdoch’s newpapers have been accused of covering up crimes as a favour to friends. Last year the Daily Mail reported that a file on the prolific child abuser who escaped conviction, former Liberal Democrat MP, was also lodged in the Sun’s safe.
“Civil servants feared the secret Smith police file might be made public in 1982 – when a burglary at the Fleet Street offices of The Sun newspaper revealed the editor was in possession of a copy. This revelation will lead to speculation that the break-in was linked to attempts to cover up Smith’s crimes.”
How many more potential crimes are hidden in the Sunsafe? Any right to confidentiality is lost if a crime can be prevented or detected. Are there victims of Smith or others from ‘Yewtree’ who have suffered as a result of non disclosure?
Sins of Commission and Omission
Of course, the other alternative is that the material held in the Black Museum is just tacky and embarrassing for the would be targets, rather than involving anything against the law. It keeps politicians and celebrities second guessing some public shame and scandal, but nothing much more.
But then another problem locks in: if these images are not in the public interest, why are they still kept?
By admitting that the material cannot be published in the public interest, former deputy news editor O’Driscoll has actually waived a right to hold private material on other people. The key journalistic exemptions of the Data Protection Act – that the material is withheld with a view to publication – clearly do not apply.
Therefore any private material held in the Sun’s safe has no protection and should be removed.
It’s clear that non-publication of the black museum means that there is no public interest defence.
So the Dark Star fails both both the criminal and journalistic test. Because it is designed not to be published, it cannot be held in the public interest. Which leaves only one explanation for holding and withholding it: private interest.
Yesterday I conducted a brief, unscientific survey on twitter with just over six hundred responses. True, my timeline is often filled, since the Phone Hacking trial, with people sceptical about the state of the British press, but the response is still pretty conclusive.
With its concentrated ownership by a handful of wealthy, tax-shy billionaires, the press in Britain is largely believed to be a tool of private interests pursuing their own political leverage or financial gain.
Murdoch: A Victim of his own Conspiracy
This form of non-disclosure, in return for some benefit of compliance, legislation or co-operation, is perilously close to blackmail. How did this model of British journalism become so central?
As the biggest newspaper owner for two generations, with 40% of the UK circulation and half the revenues, Rupert Murdoch must bear some burden of blame. His best selling daily, the Sun (always cited by the media mogul as expressing his own views) plays a major role with its black hole of the vault – an explosive concentration of anti-journalism – at its core.
This form of non-disclosure, in return for some benefit of compliance, legislation or co-operation, is perilously close to blackmail.
Of course, some of the leverage may be virtual, and the images contained in the vault entirely imaginary. As Murdoch biography Michael Wolff wrote in the Guardian: “Murdoch, a gossip-hound, often announced during our conversations that he had damaging pictures of this or that enemy.”
I asked Michael more about these ‘damaging pictures’:
“He said this multiple times,” Wolff explained: “with demonic chuckle, “we have pictures.” But when I asked him about this, it seemed more like he had been told “we have pictures.” And I got the feeling he was often told we have pictures without there necessarily being pictures. Various people at various papers would say to me, “he thinks we have pictures.” And then they would chuckle too.”
Rather like Saddam Hussein, who amped up his virtually non-existent weapons of mass destruction in the early noughties to keep internal enemies scared, Murdoch is in danger of becoming a victim of his own conspiracy
“Much of the behavior at News Corp was geared to keeping “the old man” happy and if that involved him believing that they ran a sophisticated intelligence operation, so be it, even if they were not so sophisticated and not so intelligent.”
But whether imaginary, holding evidence of crime, or withholding private information, the Sun vault is still a Death Star exerting a baleful influence on the ethos and practices of British journalism. Like its Star Wars counterpart, the myth and the reality need to be exploded once and for all.
This article was originally published on Byline and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
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