'Police have treated Sun journalists like suspected terrorists'
TREVOR Kavanagh, The Sun’s associate editor, has accused police of treating journalists like suspected terrorists after five of his colleagues at the newspaper were arrested.
The paper’s former political editor said the tabloid was “not a swamp that needs draining” and that a police “witch-hunt” was making press freedom worse than in former Soviet states.
Five senior Sun journalists were detained over the weekend over alleged corrupt payments to police as part of Operation Elveden – the inquiry examining allegations of bribery – which has more than 60 detectives on its team.
Writing in The Sun today, Kavanagh said the journalists has been “needlessly dragged from their beds in dawn raids” and humiliated while their homes were ransacked by officers.
He accused police of treating them “like members of an organised crime gang” and “threats to national security” simply for doing their jobs, uncovering stories in the public interest.
“Their alleged crimes? To act as journalists have acted on all newspapers through the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors,” he said.
“These stories sometimes involve whistle-blowers. Sometimes money changes hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.
“Without good sources no newspaper could uncover scandals in the public interest.”
Kavanagh added: “Is it any surprise that Britain has dropped nine places to 28th, behind ex-Soviet bloc states Poland, Estonia and Slovakia, in the international Freedom of Speech league table?” he said.
“This inquiry has even begun to disturb those of our critics who have been at least partly responsible for what many see as a ‘witch-hunt’.”
He also questioned why there should be three police inquiries as well as the Parliamentary inquiry, led by Lord Justice Leveson, into press practices yet “nothing on this scale is envisaged for the banking industry which has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy”.
Media commentator Roy Greenslade described Kavanagh's column as one of the most extraordinary pieces he had ever seen in The Sun.
He told Radio 4's Today programme it was evidence of civil war at the newspaper and pointed out that the article could only have been published with the approval of the paper's editor, Dominic Mohan.
The latest arrests as part of Operation Elveden take the total number to 21 but sources close to the investigation suggest they are unlikely to be the last as detectives continue to trawl through the vast archive of information handed to them by the company’s Management and Standards Committee (MSC).
With The Sun newsroom already reeling from the arrest of four of its most senior figures last month – including the paper’s head of news Chris Pharo and the long serving crime editor, Mike Sullivan – few will have anticipated the latest seismic developments.
Shortly after dawn on Saturday morning, scores of police officers arrived at addresses in London, Kent, Surrey, Essex and Wiltshire.
Synchronising their raids to ensure they were carried within a narrow time frame, detectives moved in and detained Geoff Webster, The Sun’s deputy editor; John Kay, its long-serving and award winning chief reporter; Nick Parker, the highly regarded Chief Foreign Correspondent; John Edwards, the picture editor and John Sturgis, the deputy news editor.
According to one source as many as 20 police officers turned up at the homes of the reporters and conducted detailed searches of their houses including going through their children’s bedrooms.
Notebooks, computers and mobile phones were seized as the reporters were taken in for questioning at different police stations around the capital.
In addition to those arrests, and signalling a widening in the scope of the investigation, two public officials outside of the police were also arrested.
A 36-year-old army major and his 39-year-old wife, who works for Ministry of Defence, were arrested at their home in Wiltshire and taken in for questioning.
A 39-year-old police officer serving with the Surrey force was also arrested as part of the investigation.
As news began to spread of the latest arrests senior News International figures moved quickly to quell rumours that The Sun would suffer the same fate as its former stablemate, the News of the World, and would be closed in order to protect the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp business.
In a memo to all staff, Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of News International, attempted to reassure them that Mr Murdoch was absolutely committed to his ownership of the title.
He told them: “I understand the pressure many of you are under and have the greatest admiration for everyone's continued professionalism.
“The Sun has a proud history of delivering ground-breaking journalism. You should know that I have had a personal assurance today from Rupert Murdoch about his total commitment to continue to own and publish The Sun newspaper.”
The company also confirmed that Mr Murdoch would be flying into Britain this week in an attempt to steady the ship.
The newspaper’s editor Dominic Mohan expressed his shock at the arrests, but said he was determined to lead The Sun through its most difficult challenge.
In a statement he said: “I have a brilliant staff and we have a duty to serve our readers and will continue to do that.”
On Saturday night all of those arrested were released under strict bail conditions requesting that they do not contact one another.
As with the four journalists arrested a fortnight ago, they were suspended on full pay, pending the outcome of the investigation.
The loss of such integral figures from the newsroom created practical problems for the executives, whose first priority was to ensure today’s newspaper came out as normal.
While those staff who were due to work Staff arrived at work early many of those who were not due in turned up anyway, determined to show their loyalty and solidarity.
But when Mr Mohan addressed them yesterday afternoon, the air of resilience gave way to anger, with many members of staff accusing the company of throwing their colleagues to the wolves.
One source at the paper said: “It is looking like a witch hunt now. Some of the allegations being made against people are pathetic – reporters taking contacts out for drinks, meals and the like. The police don't really seem to understand how journalism works.
“Huge teams of counter-terrorism detectives are turning up at people's homes, going through their children's underwear drawers about things which happened seven or eight years ago.”
The source said the majority of the anger was directed at the Management and Standards Committee which handed over information to the police.
He said: “These people really are behaving like reptiles and there is a lot of pressure for them to go down to the editorial floor of The Sun and explain what is happening. It feels like long-standing servants of The Sun are paying the price for the cover-up at the News of the World.”