How persecuting the Press will diminish us all
As another journalist is arrested, it's time to worry about the repressive turn the state is taking, says Nick Cohen
The police timed their 'knock' with care. They hit the reporter's home at 6.30am. They humiliated their target by ordering him from his bed and arresting him in front of his partner and frightened children.
They arrested him when he was half-asleep, in the hope that he would confess to real, or imagined, crimes in his befuddlement.
Rhodri Phillips was the 21st journalist arrested as part of the Elveden bribes inquiry. If it had happened in Russia, Iran, or an African dictatorship, Amnesty International and Index on Censorship would scream their heads off about the need for a free Press to scrutinise power. Intellectuals would send a round-robin to the liberal Press. There would be questions in Parliament.
But Rhodri Phillips works for Rupert Murdoch's Sun, so no one gives a damn, even though his alleged offence is so thin it breaks like rice paper.
Years ago, the police claim, Phillips was on the night desk of the Sun when a man called to say he had found an MP's phone. Phillips wondered whether he could write a report along the lines of 'security breached as politician loses mobile'. He left a memo for the newsdesk, which decided not to cover the story.
The police have also arrested Justin Penrose, the crime correspondent of the Sunday Mirror, and a reporter from the Daily Star Sunday. Detectives allege they gave money for information to a public official. Penrose says his source told him he was a member of the public.
Detectives investigating alleged corruption have felt the collars of a further 18 Sun journalists. To their minds, a bribe might be a drink, a meal, money for information, or an email mentioning a 'tip-off' detectives could take to mean 'a tip'.
Under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, the public interest is no defence. It does not matter if reporters reveal the state's failings, or provide information the bureaucracy has no good reason to keep secret. To the cells they must go.
Detectives are not now targeting phone-hackers, whom even liberal countries would arrest. They are punishing journalists for doing what they have always done - talking to cops, buying a round, pumping officials for information.
Before his arrest, Penrose told the Leveson Inquiry that detectives would not now talk to the Press for fear their superiors would accuse them of corruption. Many in authority want that fear to spread.
I wish liberals would set aside their prejudices and worry more about the concentration of repressive power. A potent alliance of the oppressive state and the oppressive corporation has emerged and it ought to alarm you.
To save their worthless skins, Rupert Murdoch and his management team have combined the roles of pimp and stool-pigeon. They bullied their journalists into finding stories by whatever means necessary and then handed over supposed evidence of crimes, including Phillips's memo on the non-existent mobile phone story, to the authorities.
Countries that accept the arrest of journalists as a matter of routine are never happy societies, not least because the state rarely confines itself to harassing reporters the middle-class regards as contemptible.
No one could appear further from grubby tabloid hacks than the Oxbridge-educated broadcasters of the BBC. They were due to show a drama-documentary about last summer's riots. Mr Justice Flaux banned it from the airwaves. He was presiding over the trial of the Birmingham men accused of murdering three Asians defending their community's shops from looters.
The BBC had not discussed the Birmingham case. Its films dealt with the London riots.
Even though the BBC had not discussed the guilt, or innocence, of the defendants, they had, for example, described how 'adrenaline rushes' had powered rioters in London. Prosecutors had said the same about the alleged Birmingham murderers.
The BBC had talked about bricks being thrown at cars and rioters seeking to attack the people who threw them. As had the prosecution. There is "a serious risk that this trial and the course of justice would be prejudiced," the judge intoned as he ordered suppression.
I am sorry if I am labouring the obvious, but any portrayal of any riot would discuss adrenaline rushes, stone-throwing and retribution, for that is what a riot is.
The BBC will be able to show its films at some future date, but the courts have set a menacing precedent: they can now censor with abandon and show a true contempt for the public as they do it.
The notion that juries are intelligent and conscientious enough to put aside what they have seen on television, or found on the web, does not occur to learned judges. They want to ban everything - even though complete control in the age of Google is the illusion of fools.
The repressive turn the state has taken will not only affect you as a juror. In the 21st century, every computer-literate adult is a journalist. If you talk to police and prison officers and put what you have found on a blog, if you tweet and post on Facebook, laws governing the freedom of the Press govern you.
Readers should not shudder at the suggestion that they have anything in common with Rhodri Phillips. A threat to his freedom is a threat to your freedom. We are all Sun journalists now.