Wednesday 13 March 2013

Journalism in the Dock: Are we being frogmarched into a police state or is that just tabloid tosh?

Brian Flynn and Neil Wallis: Journalism in the Dock debate (pic Jon Slattery)
The investigations editor of the Sun has warned that from his view on the frontline of journalism "it feels like we are being frogmarched into a police state".

Brian Flynn, speaking at the 'Journalism in the Dock' debate at City University last night, claimed the Leveson Inquiry was being used as "a land grab" to crackdown on the press.

"I'm 41 years old. I never thought I would see in my lifetime all the things that are happening," he said. "Officials are being arrested for speaking to journalists where no money is involved."

Flynn said journalists were working in an environment where they were seeing their colleagues arrested and stories were now being turned away because the bribery law contained no public interest defence. 

As an example, he claimed if a worker in a care home asked for money to expose abuse it would not  be published in the current climate even though it was clearly in the public interest.

"The sad thing, it feels to me, is that people are seeing the chance to crackdown on journalists because there's no sympathy for journalists."

Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, claimed the crackdown on the press was "payback time" for those who disliked the power of Rupert Murdoch and he told the student journalists in the audience: "They are destroying your career...the truth is they are not going to let you be journalists."

He added: "It's your freedom they are playing with. Once it [press freedom] goes you won't get it back."

Former News of the World journalist turned journalism lecturer Bethany Usher told of her ordeal at being arrested over material given to the police by News International. She was cleared after eight days but described it as "among the most terrifying of my life." Usher, the first journalist arrested during the Leveson Inquiry, said she was subjected to threats and abused on Twitter. "It was a very difficult eight days but was over quickly."

City University professor Ivor Gaber spoke out from the audience about the tabloid journalists apocalyptic vision. He said it was ludicrous to talk about a police state and claimed it did "a disservice to those who are struggling against repression" in other countries.

Gaber accused Flynn and Wallis of going into tabloid mode and seeing everything in black and white, while press regulation was a far more complex issue.

Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart said: "If people have broken the law and are found guilty, I don't think there's much to complain about."

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston warned of the impact the arrest of journalists in the UK was having  in the rest of the world. He said the Turkish prime minister had told the International Press Institute that it was alright to lock up journalists on terrorism charges "because it happens in Britain all the time."

  • Neil Wallis said he was concerned that journalism colleges in the south of England were populated by people who had worked only for the broadsheets.
  • Charlie Harris, from the Institute of Journalists, claimed the police had "more or less stopped talking to local journalists" and groups like Hacked Off should be aware of their impact on the press across the country.   

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