Former News of the World journalist Bethany Usher this week revealed she was wrongly arrested because a source failed to remember giving her access to a voicemail message.
Usher, who is now a lecturer on the undergraduate journalistm course at Teesside University, was cleared just eight days after being arrested in 2011 when she reminded the source that she had recorded evidence showing he had sold her the story.
She said she was arrested on the basis of one email provided by News International which referred to her transcribing a voicemail – but that this was taken out of context.
“If News International had given the email before and the email after they would have seen it in the context – which was that it was a source who was selling a story and was giving a voicemail on his phone to stand it up,” she said, speaking at a Press Gazette and City University event, Journalism in the Dock.
“He actually said he couldn’t remember giving me the voicemail and put in a claim for compensation. Luckily the rule at the NoW was that you taped everything. And once he was reminded that that conversation was taped he quickly refreshed his memory.”
Usher described the eight days between 30 November and 7 December 2011 as “amongst the most terrifying” of her life and revealed the extent of the abuse she received at the time – she said she was the first journalist to be arrested during the Leveson Inquiry and so there was a heightened interest.
She received “abuse” both on her university email and on Twitter and said she was “very frightened” at the time.
“I was called names that only women got called in these sorts of situations, there were suggestions about why I may have become a successful tabloid journalist at a young age, and when I was cleared it all stopped,” she said.
Usher, who left the NoW to go into lecturing in 2008 after becoming “disillusioned” by tabloid journalism, criticised police for raiding her home at 6am, saying she would have gone voluntarily to the police station.
She said she felt lucky in comparison to fellow panellist of the night Neil Wallis, in February was cleared by police 20 months after being arrested.
The former NoW executive editor used the platform to warn young journalists over the risks of statutory regulation of the press warning that once freedom is gone it will be irretrievable.
“I don’t trust politicians to decide what the press can print. Statutory regulation will mean precisely that,” he said.
“They will have the right to change that statute. They will decide what the press in this country can do. Don’t let them do it.”
Sun investigations editor Brian Flynn warned that the press is already missing out on important stories for fear of arrest.
Citing the Bribery Act, which has no public interest defence, he said: “Let’s say the phone rings. Someone on the other line says they’re working for a care home.
“At that care home there have been disabled or elderly people who have been abused. And they’ve reported it to the authorities and nothing has been done – and they believe that action should be taken.
“Their livelihood is at risk, their family is at risk – if we get a story in the paper, they’d like a few hundred quid. Those stories aren’t being done.”
Challenged over whether in that situation the whistleblower would ask for money, he said: “You’ve got to remember people are motivated by different things.
“Some people have families. Whether you like it or not this is not a perfect world. There are stories out there in the public interest that we cannot run because we cannot speak to those people.
“Not everybody in this world is willing to put their livelihood and family on the line out of the goodness of their heart for nothing. That’s the real world we live in.
“All I can tell you is that people ring up with that sort of story and we can’t touch it because there is no public interest defence against the bribery act.”
And asked whether journalists would really be prosecuted for running a story like this, clearly in the public interest, Flynn added: “You might say that actually they’re not going to arrest you because it’s clearly in the public interest.
“But we’re living now in a different era where journalists, post-Leveson, and post all of these arrests, are not prepared to put their own families and their own livelihoods on the line.”
Opposing the views of Flynn and Wallis in particular, Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart said journalism was in a “corrective phase” and needs to change.
“We have gone through a long period and a lot of things were wrong… Many national papers were very happy to cover up problems that were going on. And we know that hacking was very poorly reported in the press when it was a breaking scandal for four years,” he said.
Former Guardian editor Peter Preston, suggested that the debate should be considered internationally.
“I don’t think we do ourselves much good being too hysteric on one side or the other. But I do deeply feel that things are going off track here. That we’re sliding somewhat,” he said.
“It happens month by month and year by year. We need to be aware of that. We don’t need to be complacent. And if you want to blow such complacency away maybe [look at] Azerbaijan or Turkey…
“We are part of the same world. These things matter. They echo back and forward. And it’s just something that we need to bear in mind. This is not just little Britain – it’s a much, much bigger argument.”