Amid the sustained press attacks on Operation Elveden and on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in relation to the prosecution of journalists on charges arising out of payments to public officials, it is worth remembering four basic points.
First, the journalists were prosecuted because they appeared to be guilty of criminal wrongdoing.
That was the assessment not only of the police and the CPS, but also, it seems, of the journalists’ employer. Much of the evidence on which the charges were based came from emails voluntarily handed to the police by News International – material the police would otherwise have found it very difficult to access.
There was thus nothing unusual or vindictive about the actions of the police or the CPS. They did what is done in most cases where people are suspected of criminal actions on the basis of apparently convincing evidence.
Second, there was in all cases clear evidence that journalists were paying money to public officials.
The receipt of money by those officials was, in most cases, criminal, and the officials have, again in most cases, been convicted of misconduct in public office.
So far as the journalists who paid the money were concerned, the question for the courts was a difficult legal one: whether they knew enough about the legal position of the officials to be implicated in their criminality. This was a decision for a jury. In many of the cases juries have decided that the journalists did not know enough, and in most of the remainder juries were unable to decide one way or the other.
Third, no jury has decided that journalists were justified in making the payments to officials.
There has been no finding by any jury that payments were made in exchange for stories that were in the public interest, and that the payments were justified on those grounds.
We don’t know what the juries thought when they reached their conclusions because we are not allowed to know. All we know is this: the juries decided in most cases that it had not been proved that the journalists’ actions were criminal.
Finally, it must be remembered that these matters were handled by prosecution and justice services that are independent of external influence – and that is the way they must remain.
It is fundamental to the rule of law that decisions as to whether or not someone is prosecuted are made by a body such as the CPS, which is independent. An independent judge then decides whether there is sufficient evidence to go before a jury, and in turn the jury is made up of independent people.
In all of these cases involving journalists, it was independent prosecutors, lawyers and judges who decided that the evidence was sufficient to put before a jury. Independent juries subsequently decided, in many cases, that the journalists were not guilty as charged. This is how a criminal justice system works in a society governed by the rule of law.
What we have been witnessing, however, as newspapers led by the Sun howl their outrage at the CPS and police, is a deliberate attempt by these powerful groups to undermine the rule of law.
They write a good deal about ‘journalists’ and ‘press freedom’, but the implication of their words is different: they expect a kind of immunity from prosecution for themselves that no other section of our society enjoys. And they seek to achieve it by intimidation and by the systematic propagation of falsehoods about these cases.
The very idea that prosecutors and judges should be influenced in their decisions by the supporters of the accused, using the powerful platform of national newspapers which they own and operate, is a corruption of all proper notions of justice and public interest.
And this campaign by most of our leading national newspapers has been accompanied by a revolting spectacle. In matters relating to criminal justice these papers are almost uniformly intolerant, swift to condemn and vindictive, yet in this case, because some of their own are involved, their attitude is transformed. They write with a concern for those involved that would be touching if it were not so flagrantly self-interested.
It might be thought that News International (now News UK), having failed to give its journalists proper legal advice about paying public officials and then having presented evidence against them to the police, might have shown shame and humility.
The fact that it now attacks the police and the CPS for taking proper independent decisions demonstrates, yet again, the breathtaking hypocrisy to which the big newspapers are particularly prone.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and was a founder of Hacked Off.