Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Round up the unusual suspects

How far is too far? What constitutes a witch hunt?

Both these questions raise themselves in the light of Monday’s fight back by journalists against continuing police arrests of their colleagues.

A number of responses spring to mind after reading Trevor Kavanagh’s piece in the Sun. The first, most flippant and least worthy of utterance, is – you don’t like it up you, do you?

Arresting journalists is never going to be a popular move and we (that is, “we the people”) need to keep a close eye on how and why they are being arrested and what the outcome is. Things may indeed have swung too far the other way but given the criticism of the police and the very public launch of two separate operations to root out wrongdoing it became inevitable that they would. The police were not only accused (rightly) of inaction in the matter of phone hacking, some officers were also shown to have enjoyed very cosy, and actually rewarding, relationships with some journalists. Who can forget Andy Hayman’s stagey proclamation of innocence to the Parliamentary committee of enquiry ? (“Good god. Absolutely not, I can't believe you suggested that! That is a real attack on my integrity!")

Trevor Kavanagh may say that paying for information “has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad. There is nothing disreputable about it” but many things have been “standard procedure” until they suddenly weren’t OK any more. Slavery, racism, paying printers for shifts they didn’t do

Think of this “standard procedure” as paying public officials for information they have acquired as part of their job and it begins to look different. Do we really want the deepest pocket to have the best access to information? Do we really want our civil servants to find bribery acceptable? (The Cambridge dictionary defines bribery as “money or a present that you give to someone so that they will do something for you …”)

Perhaps this is a turning point for journalism’s “standard procedures”. Perhaps the naughty children have gone too far this time, spoiling it for everyone else by forcing an adult to pay attention and do something before the party becomes a riot. And, like sugar-charged toddlers who have been allowed to get away with it for too long, there will be protests and claims of witch hunts and expressions of concern about stifling the spirit of democratic enquiry.

Then, perhaps, somehow, some growing up.

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