Why prosecuting journalists for paying for stories is bad news for all of us

Barely a week goes past these days without a journalist from one tabloid newspaper or another appearing in court on suspicion of paying public officials for stories. It’s become such a ritual now that there is even an informal “supporters club” of fellow hacks who turn up at each hearing, showing solidarity with colleagues as they sit there accused of paying bungs to coppers, prison guards and the like. Afterwards, they adjourn to a pub near Wapping, aptly named the Hung, Drawn and Quartered, for a stiff drink. It’s like Fleet Street in the old days. Except that in the old days, paying for stories wasn’t something that would land you in prison.

Tough luck, some of you may say. There is a certain school of thought that sees tabloid journalism as a sleazy trade, while holding up broadsheet journalism as some noble calling. Indeed, I speak as a direct beneficiary of this great class prejudice in the newspaper world. When I tell people at parties that I work for the Telegraph, they generally sound politely impressed, even if they’re Guardian readers. Were I to say I worked for The Daily Mail, the reaction would be rather different, or so a pal who works for that paper tells me.

In my younger days, though, I too spent time in the tabloid world, working on a news agency in London that did jobs to order for the likes of the Mail, Mirror and Sun. I rubbed shoulders with many up-and-coming tabloid journalists, not that I always enjoyed it at the time. Trained in the most competitive newsrooms on the planet, they did every story faster, cleaner and better than me, as the agency’s news editor would often point out.

A number of those I knew back then are now among those who have been arrested in connection with Operation Elveden, the police probe into payments to public officials. Occasionally, I read about some new arrest, and recognise the name of the latest poor sod having their house turned upside down in a dawn raid. It’s then that I think that but for the grace of God – and the question of whether I could ever have cut it in a tabloid newsroom – that could have been me.

Hence my sympathy for the Elveden 60, or however many it now is. Yes, it may be technically illegal to pay public officials for stories, just as it was technically illegal to listen into people’s voicemail messages. But to listen to the shocked, breathless way in which certain broadcasters have reported this, you would think that paying “tip fees” had always been an act beyond the pale, as self-evidently wrong as a criminal bunging a policeman cash to get rid of evidence. It may be an alien notion in certain branches of the broadcast media, which often do little in the way of original reporting anyway. But for decades, it was considered a fairly normal and harmless practice in the newspaper game.

After all, good reporters, be they tabloid or broadsheet, have always regarded themselves in rather the same mould as good private eyes. Much of their work comes just from good knowledge of open sources, but occasionally they will also get an edge by working the legal grey areas. For example, they wouldn’t break into a police station to steal information for a story, but they might be willing to pay a police officer who volunteered it. It might be ethically questionable, but by that same standard, so too are payments by police to criminal informants. And if we want a culture of robust investigative journalism in this country, then surely a bit of leeway has to be allowed. After all, if I wanted to hire a decent private investigator, would I go one who always worked strictly within the law, or one who told me not to ask too many questions? If I wanted results, probably the latter.

The other reason, though, that information occasionally changes hands for money is that these days, nearly every public service – be it the police, the health service, or Whitehall – has dramatically restricted contact between its employees and the media. When I first started on local newspapers 20 years ago, it was still possible to talk directly to individual policemen and council officers. The unspoken assumption was that people trusted with policing our streets or running our towns could also be trusted to have a mature relationship with newspaper reporters, occasionally divulging things that were perhaps embarrassing, but in the public interest. If the reporter then breached that trust or abused that relationship, he or she usually paid the price.

Instead, every query, no matter how anodyne, now has to be routinely referred via a press officer, who may or may not be helpful, and who may or may not be available outside office hours. To give but one example, a colleague here at The Sunday Telegraph, reporting recently on an incident in Sussex, drew a blank when he called the local police control room on a Saturday afternoon. The reason? They didn’t want to disturb the press officer at the weekend.

Yes, of course, this may stop unscrupulous reporters wheedling information out of unsuspecting public servants (although I would challenge most press officers to name an occasion in living memory where that has happened in their own organisation). But it also has the effect of helping that particular organisation maintain a clean corporate image, by giving them near complete control of what information is released about their activities.

Take, for example, the reporting of last week’s break-in at Buckingham Palace, a story that raised legitimate concerns about the safety of our monarch. The only reason it emerged was because a journalist was tipped off about it. For some reason, Scotland Yard’s press office chose not to mention this major security lapse on their regular press emails.

This isn’t good for democracy. Leaks, malicious and otherwise, paid-for or free, are a healthy thing for the big institutions that run our lives, a way of reminding us that none of them are quite as perfect as their press offices might make them out to be. Such organisations would no doubt argue that they already quite transparent enough, courtesy of NHS watchdogs and police scrutiny committees and the like, charged with bringing to public attention any shortcomings. But these they are often made up of another “establishment” of members of the great and the good, who tend again to want to emphasise what is going right, not what is going wrong. Their annual reports and special inquiries may well have their place, but they are no substitute for the random mischievousness of leaks. Big, well-run organisation should be able to cope with them, rather than bringing in Stalinist-style rules to stop them happening.

Yes, of course, most public bodies will always say that “genuine” whistleblowers have a right to be protected. But that is a misunderstanding of how these things work. The completely principled source, who acts only in the public interest and demands no payment, comes along once in a blue moon. Instead, like the informants who go to the police or the tax man, most have an agenda of some sort, be it a grudge against their employer or just the desire to make money. Yes, sometimes that will produce tittle-tattle or celebrity gossip – but sometimes it will also yield stories in the public interest.

Besides, recent events have shown that even stories where no money has changed hands can now attract official opprobrium. Witness the case last April when a whistleblower sent details of £700 in chauffeur expenses run up by the new Cumbrian crime commissioner, Richard Rhodes, to the Carlisle News and Star. Not exactly Watergate, but the expenses of a new and prominent public servant are still a perfectly legitimate subject for the local paper to write about. The Cumbrian police response was to arrest three civilian police workers for infringement of data protection law, one of whom still faces the possibility of prosecution. When cases as small as that are pursued with such ferocity, it will be a brave whistleblower indeed who spills the beans on something bigger.

So as my various tabloid colleagues face prosecution, bear in mind just what effect this may have on the media of the future, and who it will benefit most. You may not approve of paying for information, but as things stand, it is increasingly one of the only ways in which non-sanitised stories come out. Sadly, not every newspaper story is Watergate, and most whistleblowers do not necessarily act out of the good of their hearts. Likewise, reporters aren’t saints either. But criminalising both will help no one. Except the people the press are supposed to scrutinise.

Read more by Colin Freeman on Telegraph Blogs
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