Monday, 13 February 2012

Defence of The Sun is not defence of Press Freedom

Since the arrest of 5 journalists working for The Sun newspaper on Saturday, it’s been interesting to note the response. As with most things there are three general schools of opinion on the issue:  good, bad, and indifferent. I declare now; I’m firmly in the good camp. I think it’s wonderful that The Sun is under such scrutiny and can only hope that other tabloid newspapers find themselves facing the same level of exposure to investigations.

This puts me and those in league with me, firmly in the sights of those who think this affair is a bad thing. Their line of attack is that this is an attack on the freedom of the press, that this is a witch-hunt against The Sun, that this is about political lines. It’s not unsurprising of course, but it is nonsense. Well, apart from the witch-hunt thing. This is in some respects a kind of with-hunt but on this occasion the witch is all too real, all too nasty and decidedly destructive so a hunt of some kind is needed to bring her to book.  You could, if you wanted, replace the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ with ‘investigation into criminal activities and standards of journalism’ which, helpfully, the police and The Leveson Inquiry have taken to doing.

What this isn’t though is an attack on press freedom. The press are free to operate within the law and that hasn’t changed and nor is it likely to. Talk of press regulation has been rather limited (considering the level of the scandal) and the aspects of regulation (i.e. what any regulation will require of the press) even more so.  So what freedoms are at risk? The freedom to intrude, unnecessarily, on people’s private lives? The freedom to blackmail people into giving exclusive interviews with the threat of exposure of secrets? The freedom to make wild speculations and accusations with no equal quarter given to admissions of error? How about the freedom to massively & deliberately misinterpret stories to suit a political agenda? As far as I can tell, it is only the above methodology being called into question and surely it is right that it is.

The Sun have responded to the arrests with an incredible line that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions just because 5 of their journalists were arrested  and they also used the obligatory witch hunt term. They’ve gone further; complaining about the treatment of their journalists at the hands of the police (i.e. they were arrested in dawn raids) and criticises the draconian nature of their bail conditions. Anyone with any knowledge of The Sun’s type of journalism couldn’t fail to be knocked over by the staggering lack of self-awareness on display.  This type of treatment is fine for political protestors but not for employees of News International it would appear. Unless of course, you can find me a story from The Sun’s archives where they were similarly outraged at the treatment of those who protested in Fortnum & Mason.

Chris Jeffries will I’m sure be sitting at home making sure he doesn’t jump to conclusions about those who have been arrested and questioned being inevitably guilty of the crimes being investigated. I mean, he would have some experience of that wouldn’t he? Do I really need to dig up the descriptions The Sun used when Jeffries was arrested? The people of Liverpool have never forgiven The Sun for their disgraceful treatment of the Hillsborough tragedy and rightly so. Advocates for the newspaper have long argued that issue has been dealt with and the mistakes learned from but it’s clear that is a downright lie.

The Sun isn’t a shining example of good journalism. It isn’t even an example of journalism at all. It’s an example of poor, badly researched, vindictive opinion writing sandwiched with overly intrusive, highly judgmental and vicious celebrity gossip. There are undoubtedly good people employed by The Sun, as there was with the News of the World. On an individual basis it is a shame that they now must be uncertain about their futures, but on a collective basis they are responsible for the production of a truly vile newspaper. For that, there is no defence.