Why are journalists arrested in the UK?

December 25, 2011, Sunday/ 13:19:00

In Turkey it is essential to discuss and develop the concept that journalism and freedom of the press are dependent upon ethical standards.

The consequences of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain are important lessons for Turkey, which has been undergoing a bruising democratization process. A comparison between the journalists who have been arrested in the UK and those arrested in Turkey clearly shows that the accusations against journalists in Turkey are more harmful.

Bribery, interception of communication and the breach of privacy are the main allegations against journalists arrested in Britain, whereas in Turkey the situation is somewhat different. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) there are eight journalists who have been arrested for reasons such as inciting hatred and animosity among the public, obtaining documents related to national security, leaking of classified documents, violating individual privacy and propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization.

In Britain, Babar Ahmed, a writer and director, has been in prison for 88 months without trial because of a US extradition warrant. The US has accused Ahmed of running a website to raise funds for Islamist terrorists and providing support to the Taliban, the Chechen mujahedeen and also to al-Qaida. An extremist group called Muslims against Crusades (MAC), consisting of 100 members, was banned in the UK and those who support MAC may face up to 10 years in jail. The offences of the group include burning poppies, holding an insulting banner in front of British soldiers and figureheads and glorifying terrorism. When asked, politicians stressed that the sentences were preventative maneuvers.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that journalists in prison in Turkey do not stand accused for their journalistic activities, but for their incitement of hatred and relations with terrorist organizations. It is obligatory for Turkey to start a debate about freedom in all segments of life and the media as well. As Karl Popper said, “We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.”

The debate surrounding media ethics and freedom of the press initially arose as a result of some questionable activities of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers between 2005 and 2007, when Tony Blair and the Labour party were in power. Murdoch’s media empire first showed cracks in the foundation when countless misdemeanors came to the fore, such as bribing the police, using illegal wiretapping and publishing manipulative news which could not be justified as an expression of freedom of the press.

In the court cases, Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, journalists for News of the World, were sentenced to prison for illegally obtaining information and disclosing the private lives of some politicians, celebrities and royal family members. During this period, Andy Coulson, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper at the time, stated that he was not aware of the accusations. Coulson became communication advisor to David Cameron, the leader of main opposition party, with a surprise transfer in 2007. It was a signal in a way that the newspapers of Murdoch had turned to focus on the Conservative Party after the resignation of Tony Blair, who was a close fellow of Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch is, by the estimation of The Economist, the inventor of the modern tabloid. He is the owner of the most-read newspaper in Britain, The Times (a “serious newspaper”) as well as the modern tabloid products built upon profane, shallow, scandalous, cheap reporting of football, sex and gossip. The tabloid newspapers of Murdoch include The Sun, which has total circulation of 2.7 million and the News of the World, with a weekly circulation of 3 million. These were the main newspapers responsible for breaking stories that set the political agenda. While expressing the media power of tabloid newspaper, Andy Coulson, former editor of the recently closed The News of the World, said that “tabloid newspapers in this country do more for its people than any other newspapers in the world.”

As a result of the major investigations carried out by The Guardian and The New York Times, in which the name of Coulson, the private communication advisor to Pirime Minister David Cameron, came to the fore, the second phone hacking scandal debate is believed to have created a curious situation among politicians, media, police, and the public. While he was the private communication advisor to Pirime Minister Cameron, it was revealed that Coulson received cash payments from Murdoch’s company which is said to have been the main catalyst for his resignation. With the parliamentary committee investigation that began in July 2011 and still continues today, Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch, the CEO of News International, and all related people were called to give a statement. Following this news, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers also faced growing calls for an inquiry in the US after it was questioned whether News Corporation had also engaged in phone hacking in America.

James Murdoch’s second appearance in the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee, and his dialogue with Labour Party MP Tom Watson, have remained on the agenda for a long time. Watson accused Murdoch of being a mafia leader who works with the code of Omerta, a reference to a Mario Puzo novel. Murdoch responded quite firmly, arguing that he took the “mafia leader” imputation as an offence to his person. Following this heated row, an MP from the Labour Party said, “You must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”

Eighteen journalists including Rebekah Brooks and Coulson, both ex-editors-in-chief of newspapers belonging to Murdoch, were arrested based on accusations of unlawful interception of communications and other offenses such as paying police officers for information in the investigation called Operation Weeting. Entertainment World editor Sean Hoare, who was named the first journalist to accuse Coulson of phone hacking, was found dead in his home. The investigation turned out to be an even more complex situation in which the dirty layers of tabloid secrets were peeled back, as evidence and confessions were slowly revealed. Evidence of bribes to police units for wiretapping caused the resignation of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Stephenson, who was the most senior police officer in the UK.

Illegal wiretapping, bribery, political blackmail, celebrities, interference in a murder investigation and lack of respect for private lives from various strata of society all continue to be headlines in the British press and continue to shock the world. It was announced on July 13, 2011, that Pirime Minister Cameron would appoint Lord Justice Leveson, who is the second highest judge in the UK, to lead the Leveson Inquiry, the purpose of which was two dimensional: to reveal the criminal elements of the past and to determine and develop the function of media, independent press, legal relationships and the ethical boundaries of the obligations of journalism. Beginning on the Sept. 6, 2011, the inquiry completed its 25th session and the consequences of the inquiry offer many lessons for the long years ahead as well as a cautionary tale well beyond Britain.

Lord Justice Leveson declared that the inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press can be described in four modules. These are:

Module 1: The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behavior,

Module 2: The relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest,

Module 3: The relationship between press and politicians,

Module 4: Recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.

Lord Justice Leveson announced he will start the second module of the inquiry in mid- to late-February, and he is inviting anyone who wishes to be a core participant to make an application before the end of the second week in January.

Treating Lord Justice Leveson to a series of shrewd lessons in how journalism works and the methods employed, Paul McMullan, one of the editors of the News of the World, argued that personal privacy was only available for those who engage in immoral deeds and want to protect themselves under the guise of privacy. He claimed that underhanded reporting techniques were not shocking at all, particularly in light of how often he and his colleagues had to risk their lives in search of the truth. As examples of the dangers of his job, he cited one instance where he had to sprint through a covenant dressed only in underpants disguised as “Brad the teenage male prostitute” in order to escape the pedophile priest he had successfully entrapped.

It was also claimed that even Brooks justified these shady practices by arguing that their methods were in the best interest of the public. According to McMullan’s claim, Brooks wanted to prepare the necessary conditions for Cameron to be the prime minister after 2007, which explains why the speculative news regarding the Labour Party had increased three years previous. Even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he read the news with tears upon learning of the secrets of a child who was a patient with cystic fibrosis; information that was gathered by illegal wiretapping and ethically-questionable leaking of confidential hospital reports, and published in The Sun. Asked by one lawyer how he would define these journalism techniques, McMullan said that the public interest is what the public is interested in.

Richard Peppiatt, a Daily Star reporter, who also used underhanded news-gathering techniques, resigned in protest of the paper’s unethical methods. In doing so, he also exposed the Daily Star’s anti-Muslim agenda during the Leveson Inquiry, and told all regarding a story he made up about a non-existent Muslim bomb plot.

A look at the folders containing 11,000 pages belonging to 4,000 different people and 9,000 wiretapping records belonging to Glenn Mulcaire -- who served six months in prison, and was freed in 2007 -- is more than enough to get a sense for the mentality of tabloid journalism. “This theft of information by dark, murky methods is not journalism which I or my newspapers want any part of,” said Evgeny Lebedev in The Independent, who is also the publisher of the London Evening Standard. “The journalists involved behaved irresponsibly, rashly and recklessly, forsaking their duty of care. Unfortunately their dereliction of duty brings all the press into disrepute. It invites a crackdown of enforced draconian laws and threatens our much-valued press freedom,” he lamented.

*Zaman Newspaper Representative in the UK

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