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Journalism

Feb 14, 2012

Rundle: to hell with The Sun, let it rot

Having debased the profession, News now demands solidarity from the media in the name of free speech. Let it rot, writes Guy Rundle from London. The UK would be better for it.

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News International is in crisis today, with open warfare breaking out between different sections of the British branch of the organisation.

As Rupert Murdoch returns to Britain to deal with the arrest of five more journalists and editors from The Sun, staff throughout the paper and the wider organisation speak of feeling betrayed, and having been sacrificed by News management, in a desperate attempt to limit the damage.

Five journalists and editors were arrested by police last Sunday morning, their homes raided simultaneously in five different counties. Those arrested were all senior staff, including the deputy editor, chief reporter, picture editor and senior foreign correspondent — in effect the core apparatus of the newspaper.

The arrests bring to 21 the number of people now arrested in the multibranching scandal. Four journalists had been arrested a fortnight ago. The nickings occurred following mass document handovers by NIG to the police.

The arrests demonstrate the degree to which the News scandal has changed, since most of the arrests concern not phone hacking but payments to police by journalists for information.

Though earning less disgust from the public than the hacking of murdered girls’ phones, the crimes are more serious, and multiple, since they potentially undermine the legal processes of the state. Potentially drawing in perversion of the course of justice and corruption of public officials, the arrests suggest the possibility of long prison sentences for anyone convicted.

The arrests have sent morale plummeting in The Sun and other newspapers in the News stable, with as many staff on stress leave as arrested, and the paper being put together by casuals and temps.

They’ve also created a fundamental breach in the organisation, as the arrests have come about following a mass handover of emails to the plod by News Corp — or more particularly by the Management and Standards Committee (MSG), the CHEKA-style internal terror group established after James Murdoch’s disastrous parliamentary committee appearances.

The MSG is designed to deal with the old Watergate problem — that it’s the cover-up, not the crime, that does it for you. But that adage ignores one reason that there are cover-ups in the first place — to preserve unity among criminals. News’s decision to hand over 3 million emails, rather than leave the cops to dig them all out, has essentially handed to the wolves anyone involved in operational corruption.

Since that reaches up to the editorial levels, it’s clear that the strategy is designed to shield the Murdoch family and close associates from direct responsibility. Indeed, at its most drastic, the intent is triage: to cut the British operation off altogether, and shield the US wing, with its huge interconnections to Fox, etc.

Such a disconnect is necessary, as the FBI is now investigating News Corp under the foreign corrupt practices act, which would allow for massive fines in the US for activities taking place elsewhere.

That prospect strikes terror into the heart of News Corp for it would simply unravel the group altogether, Arthur Andersen-style.

The Sun attempted to hit back, with a column from political writer Trevor Kavanagh, but it was covertly directed as much against News management as it was against the police that it accused of acting as a “witch-hunt”, putting the UK “behind ex-Soviet states on press freedom.”

Thundered Kavanagh:

“It is absolutely right the company co-operates with police on inquiries ranging from phone and computer hacking to illegal payments.

“… But some of the greatest legends in Fleet Street have been held, at least on the basis of evidence so far revealed, for simply doing their jobs as journalists on behalf of the company.”

And with the police clearly determined to shift all blame from police-journalist corruption onto the latter, Kavanagh made what was possibly the first recorded concern by The Sun about police monitoring, noting huffily:

“So when the police get matters so far out of proportion, we are entitled to ask: who polices the police?

“Why should questions about police procedures be handled solely by the so-called Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is notoriously reluctant to rule against police?”

For anyone looking on from the sidelines, and wanting to get beyond the understandable glee at seeing this dishonest, thuggish organisation have another power turned on it, the events raise mixed feelings.

For if it turns out that there has been systemic large payments to police by journalists over the years, then such actions will be unquestionably justified. Quite aside from giving a major organisation a degree of leverage over the cops, there is the active corruption of the police themselves, the creation of a culture.

For example, in Britain, in the past five years, numerous witnesses and informants have been killed in mysterious circumstances, in various gang-related trials. Many of these informers had been moved to secret addresses. So how were they found? How indeed.

There’s something ironic about Sun journos complaining about dawn raids by police, when some of the alleged payments have gone to police for tip-offs about dawn raids taking place — raids on people, including terror suspects later cleared, whose innocence, amazingly, was not something The Sun concerned itself with.It’s the paper that incited mobs to attack alleged p-dophiles, listing their addresses, setting vigilante mobs both on criminals and innocents. In the notorious Milly Dowler case, News tried to make a public interest defence, arguing that its hacking had opened up lines of investigation. As it turned out, they were more interested in keeping open the most juicy angles — that 13-year-old Dowler had been in contact with an employment agency in the north of England.

When police demonstrated that it was a false lead, News of the World refused to believe it and tried to bully the force into persevering with the line of inquiry — while holding back from them information that would have been useful. By this time Dowler was dead, but no one knew that then. The paper’s conduct was evil, nothing more nor less.

Having thus debased the profession and the public sphere on innumerable occasions, creating a situation where there is no alternative but to turn the state upon it, News now demands solidarity from the profession and the media in the name of free speech. The hell. Let it rot. Nothing would do more to improve honest public debate in Britain than the immediate extinction of The Sun.

It sits within a wider culture of nihilism within News Corp across the world. Whether it’s wanton corruption in Britain or bullying campaigns in Australia, News lifers are cut from the same cloth.

Drawing energy from the power and swagger of Murdoch, and believing the relationship was mutual, they have been offloaded like old office equipment, while Rupert rattles around the world, firing off tweets as if they were pay-by-the-word telegrams: “Exceptalism or decline must choose America stop launder my spats Wendi steamer docks Weds stop end” #senile.

Funny old world: Rupert has been eating his Wheeties and jogging for years to stay alive long enough to see his empire move to ever greater vistas. He may now survive to see it dismembered by the very parliament he tried to hold sway over. Tonight, News flaks were saying there was no plan to close the paper, which suggests that the option is being earnestly canvassed. As someone used to say, you couldn’t make it up.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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