Can Murdoch’s new title survive its association with this tarnished brand?

Hacked Off, Tuesday 28 February 2012

Sue Akers speaks with the flat, unemphatic delivery of someone whose job doesn’t usually involve addressing a public inquiry. On Monday morning, I was sitting in the area of the courtroom reserved for ‘core participants’ and I felt the atmosphere electrify as the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner started giving evidence before Lord Leveson. A ‘culture of illegal payments’ at the Sun’….a ‘network of corrupted officials’….clandestine payments amounting to thousands of pounds: Akers didn’t need oratorical flourishes to make her point.

As she spoke, other phrases came into my head. ‘The Sun is not a “swamp” that needs draining’….’its journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang’….’a huge operation driven by politicians threatens the very foundations of a free Press’. That was Trevor Kavanagh a couple of weeks ago, under a headline characterising the police investigation at the Sun as a ‘witch-hunt’ which had ‘put us behind ex- Soviet states on Press freedom’.

I wasn’t surprised that Kavanagh took this line. It’s been clear to me since the Leveson seminars in October last year that there are some very worried men (most of them are men) in the newspaper industry, and they come from a culture that believes the best form of defence is attack (hence Rupert Murdoch’s decision to bring forward the launch of his new Sunday paper last weekend). What astonished me about the Kavanagh piece was that anyone took it seriously.

Plenty of hard-headed journalists who normally ask for evidence accepted Kavanagh’s claims at face value, overlooking even his obvious howler about the News International investigation being ‘the biggest police operation in British criminal history’. (It isn’t. It doesn’t even come close.) Outrage spread: sources were being put at risk! Fifty-quid lunches were being treated as bribes! The cherished freedom of the British press was at stake!

What Akers described at the Leveson inquiry suggested a rather different picture. Rejecting claims that journalists were being investigated for buying the ‘odd drink or meal’ for public officials, she talked about ‘multiple payments’ which amounted to £80,000 in one instance (that’s a hell of a lot of lunches). She talked about a Sun journalist drawing more than £150,000 in cash over the years to pay sources, and the use of friends and relatives as conduits to disguise the source of the payments. She also said that journalists appeared to have been “well aware” that “what they were doing was unlawful”.

Akers quite rightly didn’t give names, and the individuals who’ve been arrested have th right to be regarded as innocent unless a court decides otherwise. But what’s emerging at Leveson is a picture of a newsroom which relied not on ‘whistle-blowers’ – who don’t need to be paid because they’re acting in the public interest – but corrupt public officials. And the stories acquired through these methods were not massive scandals but ‘salacious gossip’.

There have been other significant revelations this week, including an internal NI memo showing that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks knew in 2006 that more than a hundred people had been targets of phone hacking. We’ve also learned that the police were aware in the same year that Glenn Mulcaire had the new identities and contact details of people in the witness protection programme, a leak that potentially put lives at risk.

A single rogue reporter at the News of the World. A rogue newsroom that had to be closed down. A witch-hunt at the Sun that threatens press freedom. None of the excuses have stood up to much scrutiny, and damaging revelations continue to pour out at Leveson. Can Murdoch’s spanking new Sun on Sunday survive its association with this tarnished brand?

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