The Sun, the baby and the bathwater
13 Feb 2012

Cross-posted at Hacked Off

There is fury and fear among Sun staff after the latest round of arrests by police investigating the alleged corruption of public servants by journalists, and there is more widespread alarm about the future of the press. Where will this end? Will other papers close, as the News of the World did? Is the baby of free expression about to go down the plughole with the murky bathwater of journalistic misconduct?

The anxiety is likely to increase as Rupert Murdoch visits London this week. Though he has said he has no intention of closing the Sun, he is not (how to put this?) a man distinguished by the rigid keeping of his word. It is easy to see why nerves are frayed.

But the picture is not as bleak as some fear, and News International and the Metropolitan police are only doing what they have to do in a society ruled by law. (We need to note, too, that nobody has been charged with anything.)

It is only a few months since News International was rightly lambasted for covering up evidence of, and information about, potentially criminal activities. That material, about phone hacking, had to be dragged out of the company, notably by civil litigants who for the most part have now settled their cases.

If, as seems to be the case, the company is now diligently searching its databases and handing everything suspicious that it finds to the police, then we should be grateful. Nor can we complain that junior figures are suffering the consequences while the top brass are spared: those arrested (and bailed) are for the most part big hitters.

As for the Met, it is doing its job. It may well be doing it with a special zeal, in response to criticisms about a previous absence of zeal, but we can hardly complain about that either. And it is not as though it can make up new laws. Where they have information about possible breaches of the law the police are supposed to investigate, question, search and so forth, and that is what they are doing here.

Corrupting officials matters, too. If local government officials take bribes to fix planning applications for builders, or if defence officials take bribes when awarding arms contracts, we expect prosecutions of both those who pay and those who receive. More than that, we expect the press to expose such wrongdoing, and journalists tend to take pride in the work. Corruption creates injustice and is anti-democratic.

Will the pursuit of these matters lead to unwanted consequences? Will it corrode free expression? I cant see why.

There are no grounds for Murdoch to close the Sun, and if he were to do so it would be another short-sighted, cowardly and capricious act like the closure of the News of the World.  He has to take responsibility, show leadership and steer his paper (which is by any measure a national institution) through the crisis.

Does it follow that other papers are in danger? I have no idea, but if journalists on other papers have been bribing public officials (something which nobody can fail to realise is against the law) then they need to face the consequences. It is no use saying that the law is wrong or unfair; if that is the case the right course is to try to change the law, not to ignore it. (Newspapers are rarely tolerant of others who consider themselves above the law.)

The bathwater of unethical and illegal practices in journalism needs to be drained, and the Leveson process exists to do that. There is no reason to suppose that the baby of free expression will be washed away in the process. A far more realistic prospect is that, if we are persuaded to leave this bathwater where it is, the baby will drown in it. Corrupt journalism is the enemy of free expression; it places us at the mercy of monopolists, bullies and lawbreakers. We surely don’t want that.

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

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