Cleared Sun leader writer Fergus Shanahan reflects on three 'barren, painful and miserable' years

When Sun executive editor Fergus Shanahan was arrested more than three years ago, he says he was made to feel like “one of the most dangerous men in the country” by the four cars full of police officers who descended on his family home in Felsted, Essex, shortly after 6am. (Picture: Press Association)

He was ordered out of his bed, told to “hurry up and get dressed” and taken to Romford police station where he faced a day of questioning before returning to his “ransacked” home and his “terrified” wife and two daughters at around 9pm.

Shanahan, now 60, then had to wait another year before being questioned again, and – after repeatedly being re-bailed – was charged in April 2013. His trial was originally set for January 2014, and was then postponed until June, and then “literally at the last minute, even as we were getting ready to go to court,” postponed once more to January this year.

After an 11-week Old Bailey trial (in which Shanahan says he was made to feel like “Don Corleone in front of a jury in a court usually occupied by bank robbers and people accused of murder”) and following 48 hours of jury deliberations, The Sun four – Shanahan, chief reporter John Kay, deputy editor Geoff Webster and royal reporter Duncan Larcombe – were acquitted.

The next day, The Sun front page (right) celebrated the acquittal as a victory and pictured the four celebrating at a pub close to the Old Bailey. The verdict has since been hailed as a “victory for press freedom” by the Daily Mail, and the acquittals described as the “right verdict” by The Guardian and others.

But Shanahan, a leader writer for The Sun, is not in a celebratory mood. “I thought, I suppose I had some idea, that once acquitted I would be skipping down the lane admiring the daffodils and all would be sunny in the world. But it’s not a bit like that,” he says.

“The thing is that something like this is so stressful, and so painful, and so miserable, that the idea that somehow an acquittal is just like having a switch flick in your head is complete nonsense.

“I’m also desperately aware of the plight of a great many of my very dearest friends and colleagues who continue to be either before the courts or are due to face the courts later in the year on charges out of Operation Elveden. And I know that their torment and their families’ anguish is every bit as great as my own.

“And I see this. I’ve been to courts to support others, my colleagues, who are facing juries. I don’t think it’s properly appreciated, the misery that families go through, the fear of children and wives, that husbands are about to disappear to Belmarsh.”

He adds: “In my own case, can you imagine what it’s like for someone like me – a perfectly respectable, hard-working, family man? For several weeks now I’ve had a bag packed by my front door ready to go in fear that I might be carted off.

“There’s no way suddenly that you can reset your brain overnight and say: ‘I’ve been cleared, everything’s back fine and dandy again.' It just doesn’t work like that. And other people I’ve spoken to say it’s a common experience.”

Shanahan describes the celebrations last Friday as “terrific”, but he says that “after the champagne and the euphoria had worn off, on Saturday I felt mentally completely exhausted, and emotionally drained. And I still do."

Shanahan, who has worked at The Sun since 1989 – starting as a night editor, then moving on to be features editor, assistant editor, deputy editor and executive editor – says his “first concern” is, and always has been, for his wife and daughters.

For them, “the stress has been appalling as well. And they’ve done their best to go about their lives and keep things together,” he says. “And obviously now, while they’re relieved that the court proceedings are over, I don’t believe that anyone is dancing a jig for joy here.”

Shanahan’s concern for his family is clear from his description of the morning 28 January 2012, when he was arrested. “The Metropolitan Police sent four car-loads of detectives to my house, who arrived in the dark shortly after 6am,” he says. “They ordered me from my bed, they poured into the house, told me to hurry up and get dressed, told me I was being charged.

“This was a terrifying experience for my daughters, Francesca and Gabriella [aged 22 and 17 at the time], as you can imagine. They woke up to find men charging up and down the staircase and in and out of the bedrooms. It was quite horrifying for them. And my wife and I were clearly frightened as well, hadn’t the remotest idea what it was all about.

“I was marched off in a matter of minutes into a police car and taken to Romford police station, where I was thrown in the cells and kept there for several hours without any explanation as to what was going on.

“And then I was questioned in bits and pieces for the rest of the day, and I was kept in custody until around 8 o’clock in the evening. They had to keep me in custody while they were still searching my house."

Shanahan says: "My house was ransacked from top to bottom – there’s no other word for it. A huge quantity of possessions were taken away, a great deal of which could have no possible connection to anything.”

He tells how officers took a box of his daughter’s old Sesame Street videos, a collection of 1970s music tapes, camera lenses (“what can be kept on a camera lens?”), computers, his wife’s diaries, their Christmas card list, private correspondence and family records.

“It was completely disproportionate and indiscriminate and utterly over the top,” he says. “There seemed no rhyme or reason to it. And throughout the day different batches of detectives came and went from the house as shifts changed.

“They took every book in the house off the shelf – and I have quite a large collection of books. They shook them all, checking for things.

“And while this was going the names of myself and my other colleagues arrested that day had clearly been leaked because our names suddenly started popping up on the television or the news programmes…

“Finally I got home at about half-past eight/ nine o’clock in the evening. And my wife and children were obviously completely devastated by it all.”

He adds: “And the next astonishing thing that happened was after this terrorism-style dawn raid the police then lost all interest in me. So on 28 January 2012 I was treated as if I was one of the most dangerous men in the country, but it wasn’t until the following year that they made any attempt to interview me again.

“I was simply bailed, and bailed, and bailed again – often at the very last moment, which was a form of mental torture in itself. Because you prepare yourself for the interview then at the very last moment you get a call, sometimes on the morning that you’re meant to be answering your bail, to say that it’s been cancelled. And then you’re bailed for a further three months.” (Shanahan, in light of his experience, describes Home Secretary Theresa May’s promise to limit bail to 28 days as “important”.)

The evidence against Shanahan amounted to two emails, from August 2006 and August 2007, when he was deputising for editor Rebekah Wade (now Brooks). In the emails he signed off requests by chief reporter John Kay (below, Reuters), with whom he stood trial, to pay Kay's un-named "ace military contact" for a handful of stories which included Army bullying and a Sandhurst attempted murder investigation. Shanahan never knew the identity or occupation of Kay's source (it later emerged that this was Ministry of Defence official Bettina Jordan-Barber, who has been jailed for a year).

Shanahan says: “You might be as astonished as I am that after three years this was felt sufficient to put me in the dock at the Old Bailey. During that three years the police analysed 23 million emails handed over by News International, as it was, and this is the best they could come up with.”

When Shanahan and his colleagues were arrested in early 2012 they were initially suspended: “I remember, it was a Saturday the 28th, and on the Sunday I was sitting at home in a state of complete disorientation, stunned, unable to believe what was happening to me, and a letter arrived telling me that I’d been suspended. And that was it.”

But he says Sun proprietor Rupert Murdoch “intervened” after a few weeks and reinstated Shanahan and his fellow arrestees. He worked from home, writing columns for the newspaper, but this was interspersed with legal meetings over his case. “It was very difficult to work at that stage because the stress was extreme,” he says. “I felt like my life had been entirely destabilised.

“I did my best but then, after I was charged in April 2013, I was suspended again and at that point the firm indicated that I wouldn’t be working again until the conclusion of the trial, and so I haven’t worked since April 2013 – although I remain on the payroll, as do my colleagues.”

He adds: “It’s been a very barren, painful and miserable existence.”

He was diagnosed with a heart condition a month before his arrest and has been treated for it since – “indeed, I had a heart operation three weeks before the start of my trial”. He says: “The strain of my ordeal has been made worse by health worries.” He emphasises that his "many friends kept me going through the darkest hours".

Shanahan began work as a journalist at 18, joining the Berkshire Mercury/Reading Chronicle newspapers as a trainee in 1973. He then joined the Reading Evening Post in 1976 as a crime reporter, before becoming a sub-editor and then deputy chief sub for the paper.

He came to Fleet Street as a home news sub-editor on The Times in 1981, moved on to the Daily Mirror in 1983, again as a sub and then assistant chief sub, and then joined the Daily Star as night editor in 1985.

He has worked at The Sun since 1989, but is not yet sure whether he will return. “I’ve not made any decisions,” he says. “And to be fair to the firm they haven’t asked me to make any decisions. They’ve said to me: ‘Go away, take your time, think things through, absolutely no pressure.’ “

Shanahan may be in the clear, but he remains concerned for colleagues and for the journalism industry. He believes Friday’s acquittals have led to widespread agreement on the following facts:

  1. “This whole operation has been so utterly disproportionate. From the Mafia-style arrests, the colossal scale of the operation, involving huge sums of public money, and the preposterous nature of these Old Bailey trials where you end up with a grey-haired old leader writer like me being paraded like Don Corleone in front of a jury in a court usually occupied by bank robbers and people accused of murder.
     
  2. “I think people would also agree that… this charge of misconduct in public office is an ill-conceived charge that juries are clearly finding hard to understand and in my own case Mr Justice Saunders said it was difficult enough for lawyers to understand. I think there’s general agreement now that this is a charge that is proving to be the rock on which cases are floundering.
     
  3. “I think there’s also unanimity that the amount of time that’s being taken to complete these legal proceedings is scandalous… The idea that it can take three years – and in some cases it will be four years and possibly more – to put journalists through the courts, through the legal system, is frankly incredible when you consider that people accused of very serious offences can often be dealt with in six months, from arrest to charge, to court case. So how can it take four years to put a journalist through the courts when quite often there’s very little evidence, and what evidence there is has been supplied to the police anyway.
     
  4. “I think there’s also general unanimity that all this has a very nasty flavour of a war against the red-top press. In my own case the prosecutor made no attempt to hide his disdain for The Sun and I think that there’s a widespread feeling that the popular papers – The Sun in particular – are being targeted here by the establishment. It’s impossible, I think, for any fair-minded person to avoid that conclusion.”

Looking to the future of the ongoing prosecutions of journalists, Shanahan sees Monday's Guardian editorial as a potential turning point.

“The Guardian, in a complete change from its usual position, said that it welcomed the acquittal of myself and my colleagues on Friday and described it as good. And I thought that was obviously welcome, but also significant, because it hints at a sea-change in thinking at The Guardian…

“But what matters there is The Guardian is obviously the bible of the left-wing establishment, and the BBC, and the chattering classes, and it’s probably the only paper the CPS is likely to take any notice of.”

He adds that while tabloid editorials, as well as columns by Trevor Kavanagh and Tony Parsons in The Sun, and Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, have been “superb”, they may not have the same impact.

“I think that we can shout all we like and the CPS won’t listen, but if The Guardian says – in quite measured tones in that leader [on Monday] – that these acquittals are a good thing, then I think that perhaps there is some hope that the CPS will listen.

“And if the CPS is looking to get itself out of a corner and call a halt to this nonsense then it has only to look at the complete broad range of agreement now across the newspapers.”

He says that he would now like to see “common sense prevail”.

"The CPS has a statutory duty to review cases on an ongoing basis. And if the circumstances change, and the prospect of a conviction appears to be lessening, then the CPS has a public duty to review prosecutions, to avoid further waste of public money, and to avoid injustices.

“And I would say that’s what the CPS should do now: they should reflect and take stock, ask themselves what is being achieved here, and think again.”

Beyond Operation Elveden, Shanahan has several other concerns for the state of British journalism and remains wary of the threat of state involvement in regulation of the press.

“Hacked Off and their fellow travellers on the left have largely achieved what they wanted to anyway,” he says.

“Newspapers now are so regulated, internally, with thickets of lawyers and compliance procedures, and scrutiny, and every other check and balance, that the world of newspapers has changed totally and utterly from three years ago.

“And certainly no statutory legislation is needed because I fear, as others have said, that the chilling effect is already there for us all to see. “

He adds: “We’re in a situation now, I think, where journalists are terrified to  sit on newsdesks answering the phone to ring-ins for fear that they’ll end up in the courts. Newspapers think very hard about running investigations, and lawyers' opinions are sought. And any payments are referred to compliance. So all the internal controls that the left-wing were baying for three years ago have pretty much come about.

“Anyone who says ‘the press must put its house in order’, well the press has not just put its house in order but has emasculated itself as well in many ways. So I’m not sure what these prosecutions are really going to achieve.”

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