When the News of the World Fake Sheikh asked me to record every conversation I had with the subjects of my stories for an investigation the paper did in India, I thought it was an unnecessary, additional work. But this very policy of the News of the World saved their journalist Bethany Usher when she was arrested for the hacking scandal under Operation Weeting.
Usher was arrested for ‘transcribing a voicemail message in an email’. "What saved me was the News of the World policy about taping everything," says Usher who had taped her interactions with the source who had had given her permission to use the voicemail for a story, which led to charges being dropped against her within eight days. “Tape everything” she advices journalism students at the ‘Journalism In The Dock’ panel discussion at City University yesterday.
- Bethany Usher, former News of the World journalist turned journalism lecturer (arrested under Operation Weeting and later cleared)
While Usher has taken this experience in her stride and moved on to teaching journalism now, her colleague Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, also arrested for his alleged involvment in hacking scandal and only cleared recently seemed still agitated by the whole experience.
Wallis warned journalism students that Leveson is ‘destroying your future’. Speaking on press freedom, Neil added that ‘once it is taken away; you will never get it back.” The bitterness in Neil’s arguments reflected his experience as a suspect in Operation Weeting. Neil was on police bail for 21 months which he describes as ‘isolating’ and his arrest as ‘politically motivated’.
Neil described his friend’s experience who was taken to the police station in the wee hours of the morning while the police searched his house, while his “teenage daughters watched them rifle through their underwear drawers looking for alleged evidence.”
His angst against Leveson inquiry and police investigations sparked off a heated debate with Brian Cathcart, the editor of the Hacked Off blog, journalist and writer. Cathcart’s support to Leveson, smirked Wallis and a row continued on the fine print in the Leveson recommendation. Wallis believed that the politicians and police are using the low journalist credibility in public now for “payback” against Murdoch’s papers. He is currently pursuing Masters in Criminology.
All though the panel discussion Cathcart and Wallis were found taking pot-shots at each other. Did the hacking scandal create a “with us or against us” mentality in the journalist fraternity, I wondered.
A sombre argument came from Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor who warned that Britain was setting a dangerous example for the rest of the world. Preston who has travelled extensively around the world described media freedom (or lack of it) in other countries. “It’s become a norm to arrest journalists in UK”, said Preston, and added that now some countries justify the atrocities on journalists by citing UK as an example. He mentioned that at the International Press Institute, the Turkish Prime Minister defended locking up journalists or terrorism charges because “it happens all the time in Britain.”
The most insightful comments on the state of investigative journalism today came from Brian Flynn, investigative editor of the Sun. “It feels we are being frogmarched into a police state,” he said which generated an agitated response from a professor in the audience that such a comment was “ludicrous” and a by product of tabloid mentality.
" It feels we are being frogmarched into a police state"
- Brian Flynn, Investigations Editor, The Sun
Flynn argues that the fear of arrests and no public interest defence in the bribery law has led to journalists turning away stories that could be great investigations. “Sources are motivated by a number of reasons, for some its money,” he said adding an example of a worker in a care home asking for money to expose abuse which in the atmosphere of fear today “would not be published even though it was clearly in the public interest”.
Flynn said there was a “crackdown” on journalists as now “journalists make unsympathetic victims”. Journalists are also losing important sources that are paramount for good investigative reporting as "officials are being arrested for speaking to journalists even where no money is involved." Police have stopped speaking to local papers after Leveson except on very official matters, he added. As an investigative reporter, I can understand the importance of police sources and gag orders like these do more harm than good to investigative reporting and are detrimental to public interests.
Investigative journalism operates through grey areas, said Flynn adding, "After all remember the expense scandal was broken through stolen documents."
Hotline for whistleblowers
Another Leveson suggestion of a whistleblower hotline found no takers with Cathcart stating that “it was not a good idea” and Usher declaring that she would never use a hotline. “You have to trust your colleagues”, she stated. Preston said that the idea of a hotline was discussed 20 years ago when he was involved in setting up the Press Complaints Commission but “for real change of ethical standards, there has to be a consensus (among journalists) to make it work,” he said.
The panel represented two distinct views – one that believed that Leveson would bring ethics back to journalism and another that thought Leveson would kill investigative reporting. Even among the five journalists present on the panel there was no consensus.
Walking down the halls of City University, almost a decade after I did my Masters in International Journalism, brought back good old memories but it was also a little melancholic now because journalism has changed so much.
Back then we mostly used tapes to record a lengthy interview if we didn’t want to scribble notes. Journalism was also respected. We were excited about entering a profession that strived to ‘make the world a better place’. On this, my old professor Colin Bickler who passed away in January this year would look at us in our conflict reporting class and remark that we were just romanticising journalism.
‘Journalism is a dangerous profession. There are many forces trying to stop journalists from doing their true job,” he said. In the ten years of my journalism career, I slowly understood what he actually meant- not all forces are external; sometimes these forces are just within journalism.