The Sun. Photo credit: Lars K
Those fluent in the language of the internet will need no introduction to Godwin’s Law, or its popular logical extension – that the first person to mention Nazi Germany in a debate automatically loses the argument. The press is aware of the rules these days, conscious that the blogosphere sits at all times in judgment on modern journalism. So it seems they’ve spotted a loophole: No-one said anything about Stasi Germany.
Last week, The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh – “a very clever man”, as journalism’s very own cab drivers keep reminding us – launched a robust counter-attack on the Met’s investigation of journalists in his own paper (daily edition). In truth, the article is a reasoned and eloquent cri de coeur. But it has been his fellow journalists – and others, such as Richard Littlejohn, who don’t quite fit that description – who have taken up the banner and run with it confidently in the wrong direction. The consensus appears to be that Scotland Yard have been acting, well, like the Stasi (though Littlejohn, being a little more generous in his metaphors, manages to bring in Hitler too: “If you think this sounds like Nazi Germany or Communist East Berlin under the Stasi, you’d be dead right.”).
As Father Ted creator Graham Linehan took to Twitter to point out this morning, this all tastes a little sour in the light of Simon Hughes’ recent claims as to how The Sun, and specifically Kavanagh, managed to “out” him on their front page. The Stasi, lest we forget, employed methods such as bugging and spying to glean information on the private lives of public figures, state officials and the like – entrapment of closet homosexuals was a favorite ploy. Once they had the information, they had the power of blackmail over the individual – and they could ask them to do as they pleased.
“A democracy needs both a police force it can trust and a press it can believe.”
Compare this to Simon Hughes’ account of how he was contacted by The Sun and told how they had obtained phone records showing he had contacted a gay chatline. His choice was a simple one, like that given to so many on the wrong end of a tabloid story: cooperate, or we’ll make it worse for you. It never needed to be said in so many words – only that the story was coming out even if he didn’t. Hughes didn’t need to sing at anyone’s wedding, like Charlotte Church; instead he gave an interview to Kavanagh, and posed grinning for a picture – both to appear under the headline “I’ve Had Gay Sex”.
On the other hand, we’ve had a public inquiry, ordered by a mandated government; and a heavy-handed Met operation which has resulted so far in no charges.
I will leave it to the reader to decide which tactics were more like the Stasi.
This investigation is no doubt distressing for the journalists concerned, but they have their freedom, their jobs guaranteed, and they have lawyers on their side. We will pass over the distress (and career security) of the politicians and celebrity victims of certain press tactics, since their capacity for genuine feeling is something many hacks openly doubt. But the journalists’ position is significantly better than that of most members of the public, victims of crime for example, who were put to trial by the press but lacked the contacts or the legal resources to know where they stood.
The journalists’ position is significantly better than that of most members of the public, victims of crime for example, who were put to trial by the press but lacked the contacts or the legal resources to know where they stood.
The Met’s ‘swamp-draining’ tactics can fairly be read either way; on the one hand, they are covering their backs. They are aware that their own relations with News International are under scrutiny and that the first, widely derided investigation into phone hacking was nothing but a thin-lick whitewash. On the other hand, they are being thorough – in the face of political pressure, certainly, but also overwhelming public feeling. To this we must add, with fault on both sides, the strong sense that they did not receive full cooperation or disclosure from the gentlemen of the press the first time around.
A democracy needs both a police force it can trust and a press it can believe. Both these things are in the balance, under the public gaze. It is essential that the Met get this right, even if they ruffle a few feathers in newsrooms. Trevor Kavanagh, a good journalist turned apologist for his employers, should know this. The police are, in the end, a part of the state and publically accountable. If newspapers wish to remain self-regulated, it does them few favours to complain about complying with the law of the land.