When Home Secretary Theresa May got her chosen candidate for chief of the Metropolitan Police, his sole qualification for the job seemed to be that he hadn’t yet criticised the Government. So, perhaps to show his boss that he is ready for action, he has started by vigorously kicking the ball down the pitch towards the wrong goal. Using the Official Secrets Act to prosecute a Guardian journalist is not likely to be a popular first move for new Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who has not yet officially stepped up to the post.
It isn’t just the clumsiness of this action which beggars belief but the timing. Just when a head of steam was beginning to build towards the establishment of some new form of press regulation, along comes Mr Plod to remind us that state interference of any kind whatever, in the action of the news media, is likely to backfire on precisely those journalists who are most important to democracy.
In a press release, the Met suggested : “We also recognise the important public interest of whistle blowing and investigative reporting, however neither is apparent in this case.” As plenty of news organisations, from the Daily Mail to Human Rights Blog, have pointed out it is clear that the Milly Dowler revelation was the coup de grace in the phone hacking scandal. It was the moment when even the Times, a News International newspaper, had to come down from the fence and recognise that this was not just some nasty plot to stop a Murdoch take-over of BSkyB and join the chorus of disapproval which would finally result in the closure of the News of the World (also owned by News International).
The alleged ‘leak’ of the information about Milly’s phone, to a Guardian journalist, by a Met police officer, was pivotal. The public may not have cared (though perhaps they should have) about hacking the phone of Labour ministers, nor apparently were they much moved by the hacking of celebrity phones, but hacking the phone of a lost little girl who (we know now) had been murdered was one hack too far. It was the key moment of public interest.
It seems unlikely that the Met will get away with this extraordinary attempt to interfere with the freedom of the press. Indeed what they might well have done is swing the Leveson enquiry into the press away from any attempt at statutory regulation of the media. The state has this week demonstrated once again (see Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, for a long list of previous cases) that it will use whatever regulatory devices it is allowed, not to prevent excessive intrusions into the private lives of individuals, but to harass those investigative journalists who are attempting to hold power to account. This week’s shenanigans have demonstrated all too clearly how regulation can back-fire.
Leveson may have been our best opportunity to move towards a new ethical settlement for the British news media but we can be sure that those proprietors who have always hidden their excesses behind a plea of “Press Freedom” will use this opportunity to trumpet from the rooftops the need to avoid any kind of constraints at all.
So perhaps it isn’t an own-goal at all. Maybe the Met are simply doing what they have always done. They might appear to be playing on the side of the public but perhaps they are still playing for Murdoch after all.
This comment was first published on the Goldsmithsnewsgroup blog.