State intimidation of journalists leaves media freedom in jeopardy

Raucous, often unfair, but free. Let’s keep it that way. John Stillwell/PA Wire

I have never met the Croydon Advertiser’s chief reporter, Gareth Davies, but I know a lot of other journalists and people who have. They all say he would be the last person on earth capable of criminally harassing anyone in the course of his work.

Yet three police officers came to his news desk and served him with a harassment notice under the 1997 Prevention of Harassment Act because he had been trying, via email and Twitter, to obtain answers from a woman he was investigating for fraud. Davies reports that one of the officers told him: “You say you are just doing your job, but that’s what the News of the World said and look what happened to that.”

The editor of Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, headlined his condemnation of this event: “Police risk allowing Harassment Act to be used by scumbags to stop legitimate journalistic questions.”

The Times reports that the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based press organisation, has called Davies’s experience “an embarrassment to the authorities” and said it “damages the international reputation of the UK.”

Doing his job: Gareth Davies. Twitter

At around the same time, another journalist I know contacted me and described how he was insulted by police officers in another part of the country for simply trying to do his job. That matter is the source of a complaint and the journalist concerned does not wish to go public with it yet. His experience is not an isolated occurrence; it seems there is a disturbing post-Leveson atmosphere of hatred and contempt for journalists and journalism in general.

I have no doubt this pattern of negativity and pressure (to use the most neutral terms I can muster) is linked to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Maria Miller, who on Friday April 4 delivered the shortest and most ineffective apology in the history of Parliamentary democracy for her well-documented expenses irregularities.

The fact her advisers apparently set about threatening the Daily Telegraph with consequences for daring to ask questions about her expenses in the first place is part of the same picture. They clearly missed a trick; they should have asked the police to send not one, but three police officers to the editor of the Telegraph and serve him with a criminal harassment notice.

Pressed for an apology: Maria Miller. PA Wire

But governments have form, do they not, in getting the boys and girls in blue to go in heavy-handed on those who are asking awkward questions?

In 2009, a Labour government dispatched detectives to the parliamentary offices and home of the then opposition immigration spokesman and Tory MP Damien Green. They were investigating leaks that had politically embarrassed the government in relation to its immigration control policy. Mr Green was arrested and held for nine hours. He was being investigated for “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office” and “aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office”.

This is all beginning to get rather familiar in the post-Leveson UK. Something between 60 and 100 journalists and their sources have been arrested or questioned, some charged and prosecuted, under this same construction of common law offence.

Sending in large numbers of police officers at dawn and “banging up” the journalists in the cells before their briefs could arrive caused a tincture of embarrassment, particularly once global human rights organisations started comparing the UK to Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The latest tactic is to “invite” journalists to pop along for an interview under caution and then to formally arrest them afterwards. Failing that, the threat to come back for more interviewing under caution remains. This new atmosphere of intimidation has replaced the never-ending police bail torture that used to paralyse journalists’ careers.

The fact that “misconduct in public office” is a common-law offence means it has not been codified in statutory form. In other words, it has not been approved by the democratic scrutiny of parliament. It has been made up by the state and approved by an unelected judiciary, self-proclaimed paragons of media freedom such as Lord Justice Leveson.

Britain’s police culture is criminalising journalists and journalism. That is why there is a massive chilling effect in police and media relations. This has been measured and analysed by the BBC London home affairs correspondent Guy Smith in a Masters’ dissertation.

The risk is that in the future it will not just become a duty to criminally investigate journalists and their sources; a prevailing culture could invite some to take pleasure in humiliating and insulting journalists doing their job. The logic is already in place: since it is apparently a criminal offence and a disciplinary infraction to even speak to a journalist without authorisation, ipso facto there must be something intrinsically wrong, unlawful, anti-social, and immoral about journalists.

Thin end of the wedge

Media victim campaigners like to remember the Leveson Inquiry as something akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and not a biased witch-hunt of British journalism taking evidence from all the wrong people and failing to call evidence from the right ones. Media victim campaigners believe the inquiry was a huge success. They are not interested in measuring its success by the extent to which the media industry regards its report and recommendations as credible. The fact that 90% of the industry does not is apparently of no importance.

This growing cultural prejudice against journalists and normalisation of criminalising them takes its cue from the Leveson Inquiry, the Media Standards Trust, Hacked Off, “Common Purpose”, the Campaign for Media Reform, and the legions of cheer-leading academics who want to “decontaminate” British journalism of the “unethical”.

Let’s not beat about the bush. The language being used here is quite explicit. “Decontamination” means “putting down” the feral beasts of tabloid journalism. “Decontamination” means the killing of germs, does it not? The argument here is that tabloid journalists are our misfortune. They are the untermenschen of British society. The objective must be to eradicate and destroy.

“Tabloid” and “immorality” have become synonymous. The background chatter is that it was good that the News of the World was shut down. The next target for annihilation is the “racist”, “right-wing” and “bigoted” Daily Mail. I have to say I find this atmosphere more than uncomfortable; I find it threatening. “Reform” should mean persuading people and institutions to change their values and attitudes.

I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Socialist…” After applying the refrain to trade unionists and Jews, the famous quotation ends: “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The rhetoric of the pro-Leveson brigade demands our reflection. The laudable conviction, sincerity and determination of their positions require a sense of proportionality.

I am talking about the three Al Jazeera journalists caged and paraded in wire mesh cells in Cairo by the current pro-Western regime established by coup d'état and very much admired by Tony Blair. By investigating and arresting journalists for doing their jobs, and doing the same to journalists’ sources, particularly when they are civil servants, we have given authoritarian countries like Egypt our tacit approval.

The fact that this state of affairs appears to be approved by the UK’s political, judicial and academic classes is also fully recognised and appreciated in Cairo, Jeddah, Beijing, Harare and all the other capitals of the world where the flame of media freedom has been snuffed out.

In Britain, that flame is flickering and getting weaker by the day. I do not think it an exaggeration to say it may be extinguished much sooner than we care to imagine.

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