Miracle on Fleet Street

Martin Hickman on the tabloids and how they got away with it

On 11 December, the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, announced that all outstanding cases against Mirror Group journalists for phone hacking would be dropped, and that no corporate case would be brought against Rupert Murdoch’s News UK for hacking or perverting the course of justice. It was Christmas come early on Fleet Street, but that isn’t the way the papers chose to tell it. ‘For the past few years,’ the Daily Telegraph complained, ‘the left has tried to use the law politically to discredit those who happen to disagree with it. This has cost the taxpayers a great sum of money, hurt innocent people and undermined public faith in Britain’s institutions. An unfettered press is essential to democracy.’ The Sun asked who would accept blame for spending £50 million (its figure) on ‘the politically motivated and fruitless war on the tabloid press … It all boiled down to this: an establishment reeling from its repeated exposure by Britain’s “feral” press seized a thin chance to muzzle us.’

The papers didn’t, however, talk about the way the two major police investigations – Weeting, into phone hacking, and Elveden, into inappropriate payments to police – had come about, what they had revealed about what had been going on at the national redtops, or the fact that dozens of police officers and other officials who supplied information to them had admitted criminal offences. Journalists paid between £250 and £5000 a time to police officers, prison guards, health service workers, civil servants and other public officials in return for tip-offs, copies of records and photographs taken in the course of their duties. At least a dozen officers from four different police forces were taking bribes, including two in the Metropolitan Police’s SO15 counterterrorism unit. Some of the stories obtained this way were trivial, though intrusive: George Michael wept in his jail cell, for example, or a male British Airways worker secretly wore high heels. Others were more serious: security lapses at Heathrow, or equipment shortages in Afghanistan. Almost anything could be obtained if the offer was big enough: in one instance a journalist bought the statements made in the course of a rape inquiry; in another, police mugshots of arrested suspects.

At one stage, 52 detectives were working on Operation Elveden. By November 2015, they had arrested more than sixty public officials, and in some cases their partners, on suspicion of having received payments or laundered them through their bank accounts. They had also arrested or charged 34 national newspaper journalists with approving or making the payments. When their cases reached court, jurors had to decide where the line should be drawn between bribery and whistleblowing. In the absence of a written constitution or settlement concerning the fourth estate, members of the public would set the limits of legitimate journalistic inquiry. If the Daily Telegraph is thought to have done the right thing in buying a stolen disc of MPs’ expenses, why shouldn’t the Sun pay a public servant for the information that a TV presenter has been arrested for assault, or that a prisoner has a 26-inch TV in his cell? Would it be any more or any less improper to pay someone for handing over a photograph of Prince William wearing a bikini?

The court cases were scarcely covered by the Fleet Street newspapers, save to complain that they were taking place at all (the Daily Mail described Elveden as ‘a disgraceful attempt by police and prosecutors to intimidate whistleblowers and deny the public their right to know’). Media commentators sympathised with the arrested journalists: the officials had their snouts in the trough. But despite the insistence of the police that none of the payments was justified and the redtops’ response that they all were, there are no moral certainties here. Each informant, each transaction, was motivated by a different balance between public-spiritedness and greed; each publication, each story, by a different conception of public interest.

Celebrities had known about newspapers’ payments to public servants for years. In 2011, Jude Law told the Observer he no longer told the police when he was being stalked ‘because having done it in the past I knew that those stories would then end up being leaked’. Hugh Grant said it became clear to him and other people in the public eye in the mid-1990s that ‘if you had a burglary, or you got mugged or your car was broken into, you had to think really hard about whether you were going to call the police because the first person that came round was always a pap or a journalist – not a policeman.’[*]

‘We have paid the police for information in the past,’ Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the Sun, told the Commons select committee for culture, media and sport in March 2003. (Piers Morgan, at the time editor of the Daily Mirror, privately chided Brooks for ‘dropping the tabloid baton’.) The MP Chris Bryant protested that paying police was illegal. Andy Coulson, then editor of the News of the World, quickly stepped in, insisting that they operated ‘within the law’. The police didn’t follow up on Brooks’s remark; for much of the 2000s, the Met was on friendly terms with Murdoch’s News International, which owned the Sun and News of the World.

That changed abruptly in 2011 when the cover-up of phone hacking at the News of the World collapsed. On 20 June, a few months after Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s director of communications, News International handed detectives emails between Coulson and the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, proposing paying the police officers who guarded the queen. Quietly, Scotland Yard joined Operation Elveden up with Operation Weeting, the phone hacking investigation, and Operation Tuleta, an investigation into the hacking of computers. Brooks, who was by now running News International, resigned in July.

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[*] See also Alan Bennett’s diary in the LRB of 16 December 2010.