Sue Akers speaks with the flat, unemphatic delivery of someone whose job doesn’t usually involve addressing a public inquiry. On Monday morning, I was sitting in the area of the courtroom reserved for ‘core participants’ and I felt the atmosphere electrify as the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner started giving evidence before Lord Justice Leveson. A ‘culture of illegal payments’ at the Sun’….a ‘network of corrupted officials’… ‘clandestine payments amounting to thousands of pounds’: Akers didn’t need oratorical flourishes to make her point.
As she spoke, other phrases came into my head. ‘The Sun is not a “swamp” that needs draining’… ‘its journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang’… ‘a huge operation driven by politicians threatens the very foundations of a free Press’. That was Trevor Kavanagh a couple of weeks ago, under a headline characterising the police investigation at the Sun as a ‘witch-hunt’ which had ‘put us behind ex-Soviet states on press freedom’.
I wasn’t surprised that Kavanagh took this line. It’s been clear to me since the Leveson seminars in October last year that there are some very worried men (most of them are men) in the newspaper industry, and they come from a culture that believes the best form of defence is attack (hence Rupert Murdoch’s decision to bring forward the launch of his new Sunday paper last weekend). What astonished me about the Kavanagh piece was that anyone took it seriously.
Plenty of hard-headed journalists who normally ask for evidence accepted Kavanagh’s claims at face value, overlooking even his obvious howler about the News International investigation being ‘the biggest police operation in British criminal history’. (It isn’t. It doesn’t even come close.) Outrage spread: sources were being put at risk! Fifty-quid lunches were being treated as bribes! The cherished freedom of the British press was at stake!
What Akers described at the Leveson inquiry suggested a rather different picture. Rejecting claims that journalists were being investigated for buying the ‘odd drink or meal’ for public officials, she talked about ‘multiple payments’ which amounted to £80,000 in one instance (that’s a hell of a lot of lunches). She talked about a Sun journalist drawing more than £150,000 in cash over the years to pay sources, and the use of friends and relatives as conduits to disguise the source of the payments. She also said that journalists appeared to have been “well aware” that “what they were doing was unlawful”.
Akers quite rightly didn’t give names, and the individuals who’ve been arrested have the right to be regarded as innocent unless a court decides otherwise. But what’s emerging at Leveson is a picture of a newsroom which relied not on ‘whistle-blowers’ – who don’t need to be paid because they’re acting in the public interest – but corrupt public officials. And the stories acquired through these methods were not massive scandals but ‘salacious gossip’.
There have been other significant revelations this week, including an internal NI memo showing that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks knew in 2006 that more than a hundred people had been targets of phone hacking. We’ve also learned that the police were aware in the same year that Glenn Mulcaire had the new identities and contact details of people in the witness protection programme, a leak that potentially put lives at risk.
A single rogue reporter at the News of the World. A rogue newsroom that had to be closed down. A witch-hunt at the Sun that threatens press freedom. None of the excuses have stood up to much scrutiny, and damaging revelations continue to pour out at Leveson. Can Murdoch’s spanking new Sun on Sunday survive its association with this tarnished brand?
Joan Smith is a journalist, columnist and victim of phone hacking. She tweets at @polblonde
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
Joan doesn’t risk answering her own question because as she knows the answer is yes, why not? Such factors do not infuence people buying newspapers, or no-one would have done for a long time. In fact the opposite is true. It’s what is called Ryanair marketing. The worse publicity Ryanair gets for its legendary (ie carefully nurtured) meanness, the more cheap tickets it sells. Travellers like the idea that it refuses disabled passengers, charges for the lavvy, charges for everything – because they think it keeps prices down and that’s all they’re interested in. In fact by playing up such stories the media do O’Leary’s marketing for him. People buy very cheap clothes they know full well are made in Asian sweatshops but so what? Same with the Sun and NoW. Readers like the idea that they get sexy saucy stories and they don’t care what means they use to get them. Why should they? It’s true there was temporary (at least mooted) ad boycott that led to the folding of the Now but that was a panic one-off. No-one suggested such a thing before the Sun was launched and I havent heard a single person suggest a reader boycott even tho everyone must know the background. Sorry but true.