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'Murdoch betrays everyone in the end'

When journalists can’t protect their sources, everyone’s worse off

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

My guard goes up when people in power say that they believe in investigative journalism. Everybody says they do, of course. Then everyone says they have a sense of humour, most especially when they don’t. Just as I doubt the merriment of someone who needs to announce, ‘I enjoy a joke as much as the next man,’ so I worry about politicians and bureaucrats who make perfunctory commitments to serious journalism.

Look around and you will see that their deeds belie their words. Almost without anyone noticing, a great silence is falling over the British state. Civil servants, police and prison officers are shutting up as they realise the dangers of talking to journalists are too perilous to risk.

A good thing too, you may mutter, if silence will stop allegations that police officers stitched up the chief whip or sold a celebrity’s minor transgressions to the peeping toms of the tabloids. But think before you cheer on repression. An old and worthwhile protection for liberal societies is vanishing in the aftermath of the hacking scandal, without the traditional guardians of liberalism giving a damn.

The requirement to protect your sources was the one moral principle journalists had. Self-interest played its part — confidential sources will not speak to reporters if they suspect they will reveal their identities to the police or their employers. But a reporter’s honour mattered as much. You had made a deal with a source. You had given your promise and shaken hands. Your source could lose his or her job or liberty if you broke your word. You had to keep it.

A few years ago, Bob Woodward published The Secret Man, an affecting memoir of his dealings with his confidential source during the Watergate affair, which brought down the Nixon administration. Everyone wanted to know who his ‘Deep Throat’ was. Woodward would not say. By 2002, however, the world had moved on. His source, Mark Felt, an associate director of the FBI at the time of Watergate, was 88 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Woodward asked his old editor Ben Bradlee if, finally, he could now tell the full story. ‘You’ve got one problem, pal,’ said Bradlee. ‘Do you owe allegiance to a man who is no longer that man who you gave your word to? The answer is yes — an unequivocal yes.’

Felt was in no condition to give informed consent to publication. Woodward had to remain true to the deal he had struck in the early 1970s. And so he did until a rival broke the story.

This is the way journalists used to behave. But look at how they are behaving now. Before the trial of Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne began, the Director of Public Prosecutions said that he had been trying to get evidence from the Sunday Times to use against them. John Witherow, its editor, and Isabel Oakeshott, its political editor, said they would fight his attempt to compromise a source. But, the DPP continued, at the last minute the Sunday Times ‘consented to producing the material in question just before the appeal was due to be heard’.

If you think that their colleagues will now treat Witherow and Oakeshott as pariahs, you do not understand what is going on in journalism. They are mere amateurs when set alongside their employer. To save his leathery hide, Rupert Murdoch responded to the hacking scandal by ordering a team of managers to go through every confidential email and expenses claim in News International and hand compromising evidence to the police.

By my last count, detectives had arrested 100 reporters and sources. Not all of them are suppliers of celebrity tittle-tattle, incidentally. The Met is rounding up journalists who covered serious stories along with the gossip-mongers. ‘Murdoch betrays everyone in the end,’ one of the arrested hacks told me. ‘Politicians, his first wife, his children, his reporters and now their contacts.’

Only the great hatred of the tabloids among educated people is preventing the British grasping the enormity of what Murdoch and the Metropolitan Police are doing. One of the largest news organisations in Europe is collaborating with the state with a vigour and thoroughness unmatched in the history of democratic nations.

Naturally, the authorities are delighted. Judges, police officers and civil servants want to know who has leaked so they can punish the guilty and deter potential imitators. I am sure the Nixon administration would have been equally delighted if it could have forced Bob Woodward to reveal Mark Felt’s identity. Until recently, the only defence against the state’s demands was the press’s insistence that protection of sources was in the wider public interest. That defence is now crumbling.

Lord Justice Leveson announced his findings with the usual flannel about a free press being a bulwark of democracy. But as soon as he came to his recommendations he offered a design for a society in which the bureaucracy cannot be challenged.

Leveson recommended stripping legal protections from journalists. He wanted Parliament to repeal the section in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which, in effect, told the police that they can only go after journalists’ sources as a last resort. As for the leaking of information in the public interest, there was no need for it, Leveson opined. As an alternative to whistleblowing, he proposed a hotline for perturbed police officers. ‘A designated one of the Inspectors within HM Inspectorate Constabulary [should be] the first port of call for “whistleblowing” in relation to the conduct of senior officers within the police service,’ he wrote.

In plain English, he was saying, ‘There’s no need to make a fuss, or wash dirty linen in public, old chap. All your worries can be handled internally by following the correct procedures.’ Labour, the Liberal Democrats and many Tories agree with him.

I am not asking you to like the press. I don’t like it, and I work for it. But I am insisting that you start to worry about the way Britain is going. All over the country, people with information you may need to know are looking at the punishments for speaking out and shutting up. You may loathe the excesses of the tabloids, but I warn you that your loathing is paving the way for the excesses of the unaccountable state.

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