In the early hours of last Thursday, armed police arrived at the Belfast house of Liam Clarke, the Sunday Times's Northern Ireland editor, and his wife, Kathy. They seized four computers, children's games, old newspapers and written material. Liam's and Kathy's eight-year-old daughter was in the house. Police smashed the door to Mr Clarke's office, though a key could have been produced. Kathy and Liam were arrested. On arrival at the police station, Liam was not allowed to make a telephone call which a sheet of paper informed him was his right. Liam and Kathy were held for 23 hours. No one has explained to them why it was thought necessary to raid the house of two law-abiding journalists in the middle of the night, or why the police behaved as though Liam and Kathy were a couple of dangerous hoods.
What is going on? The previous day newspapers had published transcripts from the new paperback edition of Liam's and Kathy's biography of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and a former IRA chief of staff. The transcripts show that Mr McGuinness's telephone was bugged in 1999. Mo Mowlam, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, is heard addressing Mr McGuinness as 'babe', while Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, is recorded telling Mr McGuinness that Unionist MPs are 'asses'. The general impression is one of an unseemly closeness between the government and a leading light of Sinn Fein/IRA.
It is no secret that Liam and Kathy obtained the transcripts from a retired former undercover officer who has now been charged under the Official Secrets Act. This man, who served the RUC loyally and bravely for 30 years, will be in considerable danger from terrorist groups if the authorities decide to bring the case to court. Henry McDonald, the Observer's Ireland editor, has also been interviewed by police, though he does not appear to have been treated roughly. Mr McDonald is believed to be writing a biography of the retired undercover officer who faces possible charges. Oddly, last Sunday's Observer contained no mention of Mr McDonald's questioning, though the Sunday Independent, which is based in Dublin, did so.
The government has clearly been gravely embarrassed by the publication of the transcripts, partly because they bespeak the chumminess I have mentioned, and partly because they show that Mr McGuinness's telephone was tapped. (Mr McGuinness is hopping mad because he is being criticised by some Republicans for being too friendly with the British.) At the same time, Hugh Orde, the ambitious new chief constable for Northern Ireland, is known to want to do everything he can to discourage links between police and journalists. But whatever the government's embarrassment, and whatever Mr Orde's priorities, there is no justification for this heavy-handed persecution of journalists and a former undercover policeman. The transcripts raise no questions of national security whatsoever. It may well be, of course, that the former undercover policeman does know real secrets. For this reason, if no other, the authorities would be unwise to bring him to court.
This case has not attracted the publicity it should have done, possibly because the Sunday Times is not greatly loved among the media and political classes. This is unfortunate. Most of us can accept the principle that public servants should not pass vital national secrets to the newspapers, and that newspapers should not publish them. But a free press depends on countless pieces of information which are given to it by civil servants, policemen and members of the government. Without such information we would scarcely know what was going on. I would certainly argue that the publication of these transcripts was in the national interest since they tell us something about the government's real attitude towards Sinn Fein/IRA and the Unionists that is different from the official version at the time. The government is in effect saying that we have no right to know secrets which portray it in a bad light. Public servants who break this rule will be persecuted, and journalists will be intimidated.
What is a paper of record? Sir Peregrine Worsthorne has famously recalled the days when the Times would publish the names of the full Sudanese government. (See his brilliant essay in the Penguin Book of Journalism, which happens to have been edited by me. Copies still available in some good bookshops.) As a young subeditor on the Times, Sir Peregrine was once required to compile a list of the members of the Sudanese government. Although he had consulted the paper's resident Arabic expert, he managed to misspell the name of a junior minister of posts. He was called in to see the editor, William Casey, and given a dressing-down.
I don't suppose there is a single journalist on the Times today who could name one Sudanese minister. I certainly couldn't. Almost no one cares about Sudan, even though there is a war raging there. But perhaps there are still some areas of public life about which we expect our newspapers to offer us a faithful record. A good example would be last week's local elections.
On Saturday morning I turned to the broadsheets for the full results. I was particularly interested in the outcome in Scotland, which I had recently visited. All of them offered a fair bit of analysis. All of them provided beautiful coloured maps. But it was impossible to discover from the Daily Telegraph how many constituency and so-called list seats each party had won in the Scottish parliamentary elections (or in the Welsh Assembly elections, for that matter). Nor did my Telegraph give an account of every constituency in Scotland and Wales. The coverage in the Times, Independent and especially the Guardian was a little more complete, though I could not find anywhere a breakdown of the vote in Scotland and Wales.
I am certainly very far from being a political anorak or a psephologist manqué. Like thousands of other people, I simply look to the broadsheets in the hope that they might have a vestigial sense of their responsibilities as newspapers of record. On the same day that I inspected the Telegraph's coverage, the paper provided an 11-page sports section. The Times devoted almost its entire magazine to my old friend's laudatory piece about Tony Blair. For the past two weeks, all the broadsheets except the Financial Times have been offering wall-to-wall coverage of David Beckham. This may turn out to be a complete non-story since Posh and Becks are probably not going to Madrid. How many forests have been felled in the cause of this foolish fantasy? And I still don't know what percentage of the vote Tommy Sheridan's Trotskyists won in Scotland.