It’s already being billed as the trial of the century and the countdown has begun in earnest. One hell of a media scrum can be guaranteed later this month when the Old Bailey plays host to the trial of former Downing Street director of communications Andy Coulson and his erstwhile rival and close friend Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International.
This public washing of a media giant’s very mukky laundry will no doubt make for fascinating viewing. The content – already the subject of ribald gossip – and the characters involved both off-stage and on will inject a soap opera-like quality to events in a drama that’s political as well as personal. The public fall of two of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted and senior lieutenants will give David Cameron and other political figures who kowtowed at their feet real cause to squirm.
But away from the impending circus, there are other less high profile cases of journalists that are causing much personal stress and broader angst amongst their colleagues in the industry. Since Brooks and Coulson were arrested two years ago, more than 60 journalists have been arrested. So far charges have been brought in over 20 cases.
When the News of the World was closed in a cynical attempt to close down the criticism and to limit the potential damage to Murdoch’s broader empire, the NUJ attacked the way in which News International washed its hands of responsibility for the loyal and dedicated staff employed at the title.
Then and since then we condemned the way in which the company swiftly and systematically sought to pin the blame on ordinary working journalists, whilst at the same time deliberately trying to protect those at the top – those with real authority and influence. The lie of the ‘one rogue reporter’ was well and truly nailed but still those at the top of News
International acted to protect their own necks whilst deliberately placing reporters’ heads on the block.
It’s not just been News International – the trend spread as the attention of the Met broadened and arrests extended elsewhere. Other companies are similarly engaged in protecting their own corporate interests even if that means expending the reputations and livelihoods of their reporters along the way.
Dragging reporters out of their beds in front of their children, in stuntlike dawn raids; placing individuals under the pressure of endless months on bail before many charges were dropped; persisting in pushing some cases to trial – this has all been a monumental act of distraction designed to make it seem like justice is being done. Only recently is the Met waking up and focusing its attention on corporate charges.
The NUJ has been helping our members caught up in what has been an ongoing nightmare and we will continue to fight their cause. Because in all of this, the real issues are in danger of being lost – that sources and journalists’ ability to defend them has been spectacularly compromised by News International’s decision to do a deal and save its own neck, handing over huge amounts of data and documentation to the police without a warrant, without a production order, without a fight, without a thought for the consequences for sources who had come to the papers in trust, and without a care for the impact on loyal staff who were simply doing their job.
This article was originally published in the Journalist Oct-Nov 2013 and is reproduced with permission and thanks
Interesting article and good points about corporate responsibility and the treatment of individual journalists but I wonder whether the point about “sources and journalists ability to defend them” is right.
Para 7 of the NUJ Code of Conduct says that a journalist
“Protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence”. If corrupt public officials supplied information to journalists was this done “in confidence”?
The PCC says that clause 14 (protection of sources) is “generally engaged only in instances where an agreement, of some form, has been reached that the individual will be treated as a confidential source”. I don’t think that it is suggested that such agreements were reached with the corrupt public officials who gave information to Sun journalists.
The journalists accused in Operation Elveden are not defending their sources (whose identities are known) but defending themselves against allegations that they have committed serious criminal offences. They might be able to rely on Article 10 and public interest but it is difficult to see how they can rely on “source protection”.