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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 13th February 2012

Arresting journalists on this scale endangers press freedom

Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the Sun, has mounted a spirited defence of his paper today, raising some important questions about the scale of the ongoing police investigation into phone hacking and related tabloid misdemeanours. He makes the following points:

Taken together, operations Elveden, Weeting and Tuleta constitute the largest police investigation in British criminal history – larger, even, than the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing.

So many officers are involved – 171 at last count – that more important police work is being neglected. For instance, in one raid on a Sun journalist's home, two officers revealed they'd been pulled off an 11-man anti-terror squad tasked with protecting London from suicide bombers during the Olympics.

So far, 30 journalists have been arrested, many of them by over a dozen officers, though not one has yet been charged with a criminal offence, much less tried and convicted.

The arrested journalists are on open-ended police bail and have been ordered not to communicate with one another, making it virtually impossible for them to do their jobs.

Britain is now ranked 28th in the international freedom of speech league table, behind Poland, Estonia and Slovakia.

As a defender of the free press, I think any journalists guilty of criminal offences should be brought to justice, not least because it will demonstrate that the law is quite draconian enough when it comes to press misconduct without any need for statutory regulation. However, there is something needlessly heavy-handed about the treatment of the News International journalists who have been arrested so far. Is it really necessary for the police to ransack their homes in front of their families? As Trevor Kavanagh writes: "Wives and children have been humiliated as up to 20 officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents." Those are the sort of tactics used by the secret police to intimidate journalists in former Soviet republics and should cause serious concern to anyone in Britain who values press freedom.

It's also worrying that almost all those arrested so far are either employees or former employees of News International. What about Trinity Mirror? It creates the impression that the police investigations are partly dictated by political considerations. After all, Ed Miliband's fire has been exclusively targeted at Rupert Murdoch and his British titles, as has the Guardian's. It's as if News International has been designated the official scapegoat and, as such, the police have been granted licence to treat Sun journalists and former News of the World journalists as if they were common criminals.

No doubt some of those arrested will be charged and in due course a small number will be tried and found guilty. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of journalists employed by News International are decent, hardworking professionals who are among the best in the business. The police – and the politicians egging them on – should treat them with a bit more respect.

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