The arrest of four of The Sun’s most senior journalists on Saturday morning was – for me – the most shocking development in the hacking scandal since the closure of the News of the World in July.
It should be noted that these arrests are linked to the hacking scandal only in the sense that the evidence which prompted them came to light as a result of a trawl for data inside News International which was prompted by the phone-hacking legal actions.
All four were News International career-men who have been handed over to police by their own employer – in the guise of the News Corp Management and Standards Committee.
They have not been charged with anything, but all now face the gruelling ordeal of facing months on police bail and probably suspension from their jobs while this plays out. After a series of arrests which began at 6am on Saturday the last one of the four was released at 11.30pm that night.
Newsrooms are busy places and journalists are used to working under extreme pressure – but the atmosphere at The Sun today must be an exceedingly difficult one.
Executive editor Fergus Shanahan was deputy editor of The Sun under Rebekah Wade. Head of news Chris Pharo is one of the most important figures in the newsroom.
Graham Dudman first joined The Sun in 1990 and is a former head of news himself. As managing editor from 2005 to 2011 he was the public face of the paper. Last year he was appointed editorial development director across the News International titles, with responsibility for developing “training, talent and skill”.
Long serving crime editor Mike Sullivan is one of the best-known and most respected journalists in his field.
These latest arrests follow that of district reporter Jamie Pyatt in November and the dismissal of Matt Nixson in July over an allegation of involvement in an inappropriate payment which has not prompted any action from the police.
In a sense News Corp are damned whatever they do.
It was the cover-up, as much as the actual alleged crimes, which killed the News of the World – so current inquiries have to be thorough.
But the sense that serving journalists are being rooted out as part of an internal witch-hunt must be very unsettling for all concerned.
And as former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck notes on his blog, the News International official source who was briefing over the weekend that they were “draining the swamp” used a particular inappropriate source of words.
Whatever the historic emails involving Dudman, Pharo, Shanahan and Sullivan may have suggested – journalists of their high-standing and long service to their employer do not deserve to be talked about in those terms.
It is worth noting that whereas Pyatt was arrested in November under Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, the latest four Sun arrests were spoken to on suspicion of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”, the same unusual charge which Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer faced in 2007.
Her story became a cause celebre for Press Gazette because she faced what amounted to a campaign of harassment from Thames Valley Police for what she insisted was doing nothing more than having off-the-record conversations with a police contact. All charges against her were eventually thrown out in November 2008 when a court ruled that surveillance evidence against her was inadmissible.
Press Gazette can only hope that charges against Dudman et al prove to be similarly spurious.