The chutzpah of Rupert Murdoch's Sun

Murdoch's tabloid The Sun is under pressure over phone hacking and bribing cops. A deputy editor decries a 'witch hunt' that shows the British press is less free than ex-Soviet states.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
An advertisement for Rupert Murdoch's tabloid The Sun newspaper is seen on a billboard outside News International's headquarters in London, in January.

The Sun – Rupert Murdoch's racy tabloid famous for pages filled with de-bodiced young women, jingoistic headlines in times of war and international football, and vicious verbal attacks on its critics – is now playing the victim.

Exhibit A from yesterday's edition is deputy editor Trevor Kavanagh's "Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press Freedom."

Mr. Kavanagh's rant was a response to the arrests of five senior Sun journalists over the weekend on allegations of bribing public officials. Four other Sun reporters have also recently been arrested as part of an ongoing probe into bribery of public officials and illegally hacking into the cell phones of crime victims, celebrities, and politicians.

As Kavanagh tells it, the widening probe (which already saw multiple arrests and the demise of The Sun's sister weekly tabloid, The News of the World) has left the British press less free than in former Soviet republics. Not only is The Sun maintaining its tradition of hysteria and hyperbole, but Kavanagh has also managed to cement the paper's reputation for myopia and insularity.

Yes, it's true that Britain was ranked 28th in press freedom by Reporters Without Borders last year behind Poland, Estonia, and Slovakia, as Kavanagh writes (the US ranked 47). But only one of those is a former Soviet state (Estonia), and enforcing existing laws against bribery and invasions of privacy isn't press censorship.

For real challenges to press freedom, look to former Soviet states like Kazakhstan (154), where journalists covering labor protests were beaten with bats last year; Turkmenistan (177), where all media is controlled by the state and where a reporter was sentenced to five years in jail last year for reporting on an explosion at a military weapons depot; or even Kyrgyzstan (108), where all broadcasters are controlled by the state and where reporters are routinely beaten by thugs.

Russia ranks 142. Crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who focused on military human rights abuses and corruption, was murdered for her work in 2006. Three men connected to the Federal Security Bureau were tried for her murder and acquitted. 

Yet Kavanagh feels his paper is being ganged up on. "In what would at any other time cause uproar in Parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, [The Sun's] journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang," he writes.

Organized crime gang, huh?

Senior executives of News International, the holding company for Murdoch's papers in Britain, have admitted to lying to the police and destroying evidence of criminal activity. Police have uncovered a pattern of law-breaking extending over a period of years at multiple Murdoch papers that have resulted in a number of arrests. The police say they have evidence of bribery of public officials by Sun reporters over a period of years.  

Over the years, the paper has bullied and harassed its enemies. Clare Short, a former member of parliament (MP) who had advocated restrictions on naked women in Britain's national press, was subjected to a busload of scantily clad women parked outside of her home courtesy of the Sun in 2004. A Sun headline branded her "Fat, jealous Clare."

News Corp., meanwhile, is now cooperating with police investigators and an internal investigation is what led to the latest arrests (many British reporters say the tradition of omerta within the Murdoch papers has been severely strained by that cooperation).

Kavanagh's piece also appears to imply that the effort to root out corruption is putting citizens at risk. He writes, "Major crime investigations are on hold as 171 police are drafted in to run three separate operations. In one raid, two officers revealed they had been pulled off an elite 11-man anti-terror squad trying to protect the Olympics from a mass suicide attack."

The Metropolitan Police is taking issue with Kavanagh's assertions, however.

It issued a statement in which it said none of the arrests involved more than 10 officers, contrary to Kavanagh's "up to 20 officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents." It also said that "given the seriousness of the allegations currently under investigation and the significant number of victims, the [Metropolitan Police Service] does not believe that the level of resources devoted to the three inquiries is in any way disproportionate to the enormous task in hand... At no stage has any major investigation been compromised as a result of these deployments."

There are, of course, real concerns about press freedom in Britain. Some MPs have called for tighter regulation of the press, sensing an opening in the public revulsion at the antics of The Sun and The News of the World. Hopefully, they won't succeed.

This story was edited after posting to correct the spelling of Mr. Kavanagh's name.

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