Well done, my Sun, but there is a bad taste in the mouth – hypocrisy and the Plebgate trial

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

The stench of hypocrisy is all pervading at the Sun newspaper and News Group Newspapers after the statement issued by Stig Abell, the paper’s managing editor, at the end of the Plebgate libel trial.

Carrying the sword of truth and justice, the weapon of choice used by Jonathan Aitken before he went to prison, Abell was triumphant, saying judgment was a vindication of the newspaper and its reporters. He added: “We now live in a world where the task of uncovering what goes on in our institutions has never been more difficult. It is the job of journalists to shine light into the dark corners of public and political life. There are many in the establishment who do not want us to do that.”

This is from a newspaper and a publisher that has thrown its reporters to the wolves and handed over hundreds of thousands of documents revealing the most secret of sources. These reporters and others to come are facing trial but thankfully in the same week that Stig Abell trotted out his shameful claim one of those reporters was cleared of payment to public officials.

The fact that Clodagh Hartley, the Whitehall editor, even ended up in the dock was purely down to News Group who betrayed the principles of journalism in handing over the sources of stories to the authorities. They might as well have provided handcuffs as well.

Hartley was no innocent when she told her trial: “I thought the sources would be protected.” She had every right to believe it. It is a guiding principle. Instead the Sun’s publisher handed over swathes of data to Scotland Yard.

These documents showed that Hartley had paid for stories, in particular a budget leak that showed how the government was going to spin its announcements.

Unfortunately, the decision of the Sun to feed her to the lions has meant that a disillusioned Hartley will not be returning to newsroom journalism, certainly not at the paper that put her head on the police platter.

Now in berating the Sun I am not downplaying the significant victory in the Plebgate libel trial. Andrew Mitchell, the arrogant government chief whip brought down to earth by hubris, tried in vain to face down both the newspaper and PC Toby Rowland. He even had his MP mate David Davies at his side when the judgement was made to savour the moment of victory and his friends in the right wing press set up to attack the police and the tabloid press.

Good on the Sun for backing Tom Newton Dunn, who brought in the exclusive, and not surrendering at the first whiff of gunshot. David Dinsmore, the editor, should be congratulated for having a backbone unlike some at his organisation.

But he has an even bigger job on his hands in the next year in trying to raise the morale of a newsroom that does not trust Rupert Murdoch. They are reading every day about evidence provided by the Sun that has put and will continue to put journalists, their mates, in the dock. Evidence has been provided on reporters, news desks, and deputy editors, but nothing that damages anyone above editorial level.

So well done, my Sun, but there is a bad taste in the mouth and it will take a long time to go away.

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