In the Sun, 13 February 2012, the paper’s former political editor Trevor Kavanagh was given the best part of a page to protest that ‘this witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press freedom’. The ‘witch-hunt’ in question was the arrest of five Sun journalists accused, as part of the seemingly endless fall-out from the phone hacking scandal, of bribing public officials, and the former eastern bloc countries were Poland, Estonia and Slovakia which, according to the World Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), all had better records on press freedom than the UK, which had dropped nine places to number 28 since the last such survey.
However, when questioned by Hugh Tomlinson QC, it turned out that the UK’s fall from grace had nothing to do with the arrests of journalists on serious criminal charges but, as RSF explained, with
‘the management of private data and the attitude towards journalists when managing the 2011 riots: although we fully understood the urgent need to restore order, there were attempts to use journalists as police auxiliaries. PM David Cameron said the main TV channels should hand their rushes over to the police (which hampers the confidentiality of journalistic sources), there were even calls to suspend the activity of the social networks’.
Yes indeed there were, and nowhere were some of these ideas voiced more loudly than in sections of the British press. Take, for example, the paper which mounted a ‘Shop a Moron’ campaign, replete with mugshots of alleged rioters (although of course the word ‘alleged’ was conspicuous by its absence); which on 10 August 10 ran an editorial headed ‘The Fightback’ which insisted that parliament must ‘think about’ popular social networking sites and that ‘site bosses must hand all such [riot-related] messages to cops’; and which on 20 August published an article which suggested that the ‘broadcast media can learn from the Americans. Following high school massacres like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech, broadcast media now refuse to give the perpetrators the oxygen of publicity in order to prevent copycat events’. In other words, they should self-censor themselves. And yes, the paper in question was indeed the Sun.
And yet, just a few months later, Kavanagh gave an impassioned defence of free speech at the first seminar organised by Lord Justice Leveson before the actual hearings of his inquiry began. This was proudly reproduced in the Sun, 7 October 2011, where we read that ‘freedom of speech is a hard-won, centuries-old principle which did not arrive in the last shower with the Human Rights Act. It remains one of the foundation stones of democracy and is enshrined as such in the American constitution, with a few clear exceptions’. In the case of the Sun, however, these exceptions are actually remarkably numerous, and generally involve those media of which the Murdoch empire disapproves (or which are his competitors, which more or less amounts to the same thing). So here, out of literally dozens of possible ones, are just four examples of the kinds of free speech which the Sun, and indeed the Murdoch press as a whole, would like to suppress.
On 31 January 1987, the offices of BBC Scotland were raided by Special Branch, and all material relating to Duncan Campbell’s Secret Society series seized (the fact that the series was all about secrecy in Britain really is an irony too far) . The Sun’s reaction to this Stasi-like behaviour was not to criticise this shocking exercise of state power against the media but to run an editorial on 3 February headed ‘Who Cares?’ in which it opined that
‘the Beeb have only themselves to blame. Again and again – and notably over the Falklands and the IRA – they have shown they cannot be trusted to defend the national interest. It was monumentally irresponsible to employ a left-wing journalist whose sole purpose in life seems to be to undermine our security services’.
On 28 April 1988, Thames Television showed Death on the Rock, a documentary about the killing in Gibraltar of three IRA members by the British security services, which had the temerity to question the official view of events. The programme and its makers became the targets of a truly vicious campaign of abuse and disinformation by the Murdoch press, in which The Sunday Times played the leading role, taking the government’s side against the broadcasters and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which had cleared the programme for transmission. But the Sun also joined the attack, and on 29 April, under the headline ‘Blood on Screen – Thames’ Cheap Telly Scoop is Just IRA Propaganda’, it lambasted the IBA for not banning the programme, bellowing that ‘under the quivering geriatric chairmanship of ex-Dandy editor Lord Thomson, it does not merely lack teeth. It has not a fibre of strength or guts in its entire being’. The paper went on to smear one of the programme’s chief witnesses, Carmen Proetta, as ‘The Tart of Gib’, a calumny for which it was to pay dearly in the libel courts.
On 25 November 1993, in the wake of the trial of the two boys who killed James Bulger, the Sun published an article which purported to show the ‘chilling links between James murder and tape rented by killer’s dad’. The film was Child’s Play 3, but the alleged ‘links’ depended for their validity entirely on a description of the film’s plot by the Sun which quite simply distorted it out of all recognition. Nothing daunted, however, the following day’s front page headline read ‘For the Sake of ALL Our Kids … Burn Your Video Nasty’. The result of all this hysterical clamour (in which, it must be admitted, the Sun was joined by other papers), was that in 1994 the Video Recordings Act 1984, which had been helped onto the statute book in the first place by lurid stories about ‘video nasties’ in papers such as the Sun, was tightened up still further, giving the UK the strictest video censorship in the EU outside of the Republic of Ireland.
On 1 June 2003, the BBC broadcast a documentary about al-Jazeera in its Correspondent slot, in spite of a week-long campaign by the Sun to have it banned. What the paper opportunistically latched onto was the extremely brief, and heavily pixelated, footage of the dead bodies of Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth and Sapper Luke Allsopp, who were killed in an ambush during the Iraq War, footage which the BBC, along with the other UK broadcasters and the press, had refused to show at the time of its original release. The programme had in fact already been postponed for a month because the original screening would have coincided with the soldiers’ funerals. The Sun referred to the footage variously as an ‘atrocity’, ‘sickening’ and ‘beyond comprehension’, although in fact the only thing that was truly sickening about this episode was the Sun’s entirely cynical exploitation of the grief of the dead men’s relatives for its proprietor’s commercial ends. Thus, for example, a lengthy article on May 28, headed ‘Bloated, Biased and Disloyal to Britain’, rapidly forgot the unfortunate relatives and launched into the main point of the story: a furious tirade against the BBC. Amongst other things this alleged that ‘senior officers aboard Britain’s Gulf flagship Ark Royal banned BBC News 24 and switched to Sky News [sic] after sailors labelled the BBC the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation’ and quoted ‘TV arts pundit’ (and sometime Murdoch employee) Jonathan Miller to the effect that ‘what Britain needs is a public broadcasting system that answers to viewers, not a bloated BBC hooked on extracting money with menaces from every home in the land’.
Courageously the BBC held its ground, and the programme was broadcast intact, although sadly, if all too predictably, not before the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had given ample support to the Sun’s squalid and self-interested campaign. This, unfortunately, is only one of the many chilling demonstrations of the consequences for journalistic freedom, and indeed for freedom of expression in general, of the extraordinarily unhealthy relationship of mutual interdependence in which the Blair government and the Murdoch media locked themselves.
We might also consider how a newspaper such as the Sun utilises its cherished ‘freedom’. Take, for example, the Hillsborough disaster of 15 April 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans died and 766 others were injured at a match in Sheffield because South Yorkshire police completely lost control of the crowd. From the very moment of the disaster, the newspaper entirely ignored the mass of evidence about police incompetence from fans who’d been at the match, and all too freely lent its services to a quite unbelievably squalid campaign, masterminded by the South Yorkshire police and the Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Pattnick, to put the entire blame for the tragedy on the fans themselves.
Thus under the headline ‘The Truth’ it ran a series of prominent sub-heads alleging that ‘some fans picked pockets of victims’, ‘some fans urinated on the brave cops’ and ‘some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life’. Nothing could be further from the truth, as was known at the time by those present at the event, as been repeatedly demonstrated by successive editions of Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough: the Truth, and as has been conclusively proved by the Hillsborough Independent Panel report published on 12 September 2012, but this was the utterly false and vilely reprehensible version of the story which the Sun felt itself entirely free to publish on 19 April 1989.
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University, Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. He has written widely on the press.