War of words at publisher intensifies as paper's associate editor tells of 'unease' at role of internal inquiry
Parts of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation have been boasting about handing information to police that has led to the arrests of 10 journalists at the Sun, one of the tabloid's most senior staff said on Monday.
Trevor Kavanagh, the paper's associate editor, told BBC Radio 5 Live that the mood on the paper was "despondent" and there was "a feeling of being under siege". Appearing on the Richard Bacon show, he added: "There has never been a bigger crisis than this."
In a clear swipe against News Corp's powerful Management and Standards Committee, Kavanagh said "there is certainly a mood of unhappiness that the company proudly, certain parts of the company – not News International I hasten to add, not the newspaper side of the operation – actually boasting that they are sending information to police that has put these people I have just described into police cells."
News Corp's MSC was set up last year in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal to co-operate with police investigations into hacking and allegations of corrupt payments to public officials. The arrests of Sun journalists comes after the MSC reconstructed an email archive of 300m messages and turned over parts of that archive to the police, providing the information that led to five arrests of Sun journalists last weekend as well as four last month and one last year.
In a tour of broadcast studios at lunchtime, Kavanagh launched a staunch defence of journalists on the tabloid, claiming that they were treated worse than terrorists and that the police now had more officers — 171 in total — investigating News
International than they did on the Milly Dowler case or the Lockerbie terrorist attack.
He told Radio 4's World at One there was concern about the way in which the MSC is handing over information to the police. "I think it's fair to say that there is unease about the way that some of the best journalists in Fleet Street have ended up being arrested on evidence that the MSC has handed to the police" he told Radio 4's World at One.
His remarks are being seen as a sign that Murdoch's British publishing operation is sliding into civil war, with journalists on the Sun and the Times furious with they way they believe their bosses are "throwing journalists to the lion's den". This morning Kavanagh – who had been considered close to Rupert Murdoch – penned an opinion piece for the Sun titled "Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on free press".
Kavanagh said the police operation was "completely out of proportion", with as many as 20 officers turning up at one journalist's home on Saturday. He said he suspected police were trying to recover their own reputation after failing to investigate the original allegations of phone hacking.
"They lost a police commissioner, they've lost a deputy police commissioner and they now want to make it abundantly clear that they aren't going to leave a single stone, floorboard, drawer, cupboard, Kellogg's packet or any other part of the household untouched," he said.
Kavanagh said that no one is opposed to co-operation with the police and that the company should hand over information when appropriate, but it was up to the police to sift through the 300m emails and hordes of other documents, not the MSC.
He said 30 current and former News International journalists have now been suspended with no evidence of wrongdoing and no arrests, yet their careers could now be destroyed.
Kavanagh's column in the Sun on Monday protested that police were treating staff on the paper like "members of an organised crime gang".
On Radio 4 he denounced declarations two weeks ago that the MSC was charged with "draining the swamp". He added: "I think that's an appalling suggestion and it's resented bitterly and deeply by those many excellent journalists who have worked loyally for the company for most of their working lives.
"The point is you have people being raided by up to 20 police officers at a time when they are still in bed at home and they are having their children's underwear drawers searched by policemen who in fact are being seconded from sensitive terrorist units at a time when we are trying to prepare for the Olympic games and the potential of a mass suicide attack," he said.
He told Adam Boulton of Sky News that the News of the World staff had already paid a high price for alleged wrongdoing at News International and that the police were now going to the other extreme after failing to investigate original allegations over phone hacking.
Kavanagh said closing the Sun would be "surely the ultimate disproportionate act". He added: "I think there's no justification on the basis of what you and I know so far for any such precipitate and disastrous decision. I think it would be a catastrophe for British media and newspapers worldwide and even possibly for the BBC if action which at this stage suggests no actual guilt should be regarded as grounds for closing newspapers."
In the Sun newsroom there is a sense of anger and despair. "Any of us could be arrested, we just don't know," said one insider who asked not to be named.
Another said: "The company has a legal duty of care to its staff. These people work anti-social hours, work overtime without question, miss family occasions for this paper. It's all very well to have the sympathy of your direct boss but when the overall company doesn't give a toss, that counts for nothing. There is going to be a backlash when Murdoch arrives here later this week."