Posts Tagged ‘Sally Murrer’
Amid the growing furore over the £93 million of public money that UK MPs claimed last year for various arcane “expenses” – whilst also attempting to block full disclosure of the details – the broadsheet columnists have been coming out in force to defend our poor beleagured politicians.
Writing in the Times, David Aaronovitch suggests that the publishing of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith personal bills – for which she had submitted a public expense claim and which included the cost of two “adult movies” watched by her husband – was “as big a breach of privacy as one can imagine”.
Aaronovitch clearly needs to try imagining a bit harder, and obviously hasn’t been paying attention to what Jacqui Smith’s own department has been up to recently. Sadly, there’s nothing “imaginary” about the sweeping powers that the government has been seeking, to monitor every email sent, every phone call made, and every website visited by every person in the UK – or about cases like that of local journalist Sally Murrer, who was bugged for weeks, then arrested, strip-searched and put on trial on trumped up charges (she was acquitted in November last year after an 18-month ordeal) as part of the government’s vindictive campaign of harrassment against the police whistleblower Mark Kearney, who Murrer happened to be friends with.
Just three days ago, Jacqui Smith was being quoted in the Telegraph (where else?) denouncing those who have raised objections about such government encroachments as “people who take an approach to rights which puts the right of privacy above a pretty fundamental right for us to be safe”.
But now that the privacy of Jacqui Smith and her husband have been compromised – albeit chiefly through their own greed and carelessness – the government is threatening to launch a criminal investigation into how the information was leaked.
Writing in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee insists that “Our politicians are among the cleanest in the world” and warns that “Those who abuse, belittle and encourage popular contempt for MPs should consider that we need more good people in politics”. Toynbee suggests that “the excruciating public humiliation of the home secretary’s husband for watching a couple of porn movies” may deter decent candidates from seeking a political career.
This seems entirely to miss the point. What’s primarily at issue is not that Jacqui Smith’s husband watches pay-per-view porn movies – it’s that he got his wife to make an official claim requesting that the costs of his private habit be reimbursed with public money. If Smith hadn’t submitted her husband’s extracurricular activities as a supposedly legitimate “expense”, then the media would never have found out about them in the first place. Anyone who’d be deterred from going into politics by the fear that their dodgy expense claims may lead to public humiliation would clearly be better off out of it for everybody’s sake.
But the prize for the most slavishly forelock-tugging display of deference to our self-serving political elite must surely go to the historian Geoffrey Alderman, also writing in the Guardian. Jacqui Smith and her husband have done nothing wrong and have nothing to apologise for, he insists, and anyway “the rules governing the reimbursement of MPs’ expenses are very unclear”.
Furthermore, says Geoffrey Alderman, for an assistant of the home secretary (Smith’s husband is paid £40,000 from the public purse to do her admin for her), it “might be argued” that watching pay-per-view porn “is legitimate research”. Pure genius…
From The Times
Maurice Frankel (letter, Dec 4) identifies the most serious aspect of police proceedings against Damian Green, namely their decision to search and arrest on charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting in relation to alleged “misconduct in public office” of his source in the Home Office. Were this charge to stick, it would mean that any “public watchdog” — editor, journalist or MP — who enthusiastically receives a leak from a civil servant, would be liable (incredibly) to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, without any public interest defence.
Charging these common law offences in respect to leaks of merely “confidential” information would be a clear breach of the Home Secretary’s assurance to Parliament, given during the passage of the 1989 Official Secrets Act. To charge them in a case where (so Sir Paul Stephenson has hinted) leaked information has “potential” security implications, would circumvent section 5 of that Act, which applies to recipients of such information but protects them by requiring the prosecution to prove that any disclosure of the information would be damaging to the interests of the United Kingdom. No such defence is available to the common law charges. The offence of “misconduct in public office” was invented by Lord Mansfield in 1783 to convict a deceitful army accountant. It has been superseded by more modern statutory offences of bribery, corruption and theft. The common law has no clear definition of “misconduct” and the crime is now mainly used against police who recklessly fail in their duty. It has never been used against a “watchdog” until R v Kearney and Murrer. The latter was a local newspaper journalist charged by Thames Valley Police with “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office” — the very charge copied by the Met for use against Mr Green. On November 25 her trial collapsed because the judge held that the prosecution had breached the Article 10 free-speech guarantee in the Human Rights Act.
Two days later the Met Police arrested the MP (and obtained entrance to Parliament) on a charge they must therefore have known was legally questionable. The CPS did know, because on that very day a decision was taken not to appeal the Murrer decision. So why didn’t the Met police take advice from the DPP, who heads the CPS, before their rash decision to enter Parliament and arrest an MP on a charge that is probably incompatible with the Article 10 right to receive and impart information? Their blunders demonstrate the necessity of police to obtain authoritative legal advice from the DPP at the beginning, and not at the end, of controversial operations. The police are only entitled to operational independence if those operations are conducted according to law.
For years, The Sun newspaper and its erstwhile political spokesman Trevor Kavanagh have firmly supported UK government demands for ever more “sweeping new powers” to bug, monitor and jail us without charge and with minimal oversight. Two days ago, the newspaper was still demanding – albeit with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance – that the police be allowed to “detain suspects for as long as they need”.
But the arrest of Sally Murrer, combined with the government’s suicide attack against the last remnants of its reputation seems to have brought about a change of heart.
“We are a police state here and now”, declares Trevor Kavanagh in today’s Sun.
I used to think ID cards were a good thing. What law-abiding citizen could object to these new weapons against terrorists, rapists and murderers? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Not any more… If Damian Green can be banged up for nine hours for telling the truth, what hope for you and me? …
The Government’s kneejerk abuse of anti-terror laws as a political weapon is increasingly sinister. It uses them on any pretext – even freezing the economy of friendly Iceland recently when its banks went bust… Soon, unelected snoopers will be able to pry into our mobile calls, text messages and emails. These are the alarming consequences of an authoritarian regime that sees the state as paramount and the people as pygmies.
Now that the government’s extraordinary judicial harassment of journalist Sally Murrer has finally been stopped, Ms Murrer is free to speak openly about the case for the first time. In an article in today’s Mail on Sunday, Murrer describes in detail the personal toll that her 19-month ordeal has taken.
The startling political implications of the case are further highlighted by Nick Cohen in the Observer. Though sympathetic, Cohen describes as a “conspiracy theory” Murrer’s belief that she was targeted because of her close friendship with Mark Kearney, the police whistleblower in the Sadiq Khan case, who was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted with her.
This description seems somewhat harsh. Sally Murrer is the only journalist in the entire country to have been singled out in this way, simply for doing what local journalists do all the time – taking news tip-offs from local police sources. But unlike other local newspaper journalists, one of Sally Murrer’s friends – and sources – happens to be the man at the centre of a high profile police scandal that caused the government enormous embarrassment – a man whose son and former business associate were also targeted for prosecution in the same case. It surely isn’t wildly speculative to suppose that these two facts might have had some connection…
Just one day after the shadow Home Office minister Damian Green was arrested by nine counter-terrorism officers on suspicion of “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” – an arcane charge stemming from his publishing embarrassing revelations from a government whistleblower, news was released that the local journalist Sally Murrer had been fully cleared of a similar charge, in a costly court case which has been dragging on since May 2007.
The case against Murrer fell apart earlier this week, after a judge ruled that the key evidence presented by police had been gathered illegally. A press gagging order had been in place until today, while the prosecution made up their minds over whether or not to appeal. Murrer’s car and phone conversations with her police officer friend Mark Kearney had been secretly bugged over a period of weeks, before she was arrested, strip searched, and told that she could go to prison for life simply for having heard information deemed “sensitive”.
It later emerged that Mark Kearney was at the centre of the scandal surrounding the bugging by Thames Valley Police of the Labour MP Sadiq Khan. Kearney had been put under pressure to co-operate with the secret surveillance of Khan, and had raised concerns that the practice was unethical, if not illegal, shortly before his fellow police officers began investigating his contact with Murrer.
“They tried to discredit the whistleblower and the journalist they thought he was going to blow the whistle to and destroy the story that way”, Murrer told the Press Gazette earlier this year. “It seems like a huge hammer to smash a very small nut and I think this could be one of the biggest cover-ups this country has ever seen. They were trying to ruin him, destroying me in the process.”
The police also arrested Kearney’s son, Harry, a serving soldier, on similar charges. Quoted in the Times, Kearney suggested that:
“To get at me the police have tried to bring my son down as well – we used to call it hostage taking, arresting a suspect’s family to make him crack. But the Army have stood by him.”
Speaking after her court victory, Murrer told the Press Gazette that she was too emotionally exhausted to feel triumphant, and that after her 18-month ordeal she was unsure whether she had the confidence to continue her work as a journalist.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which government demands for “sweeping new powers”, ostensibly to protect public security, often lead to those powers being used in ways far beyond those originally intended. One among many recent examples was the use of anti-terrorist legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK.
Now counter-terrorism police have arrested the Conservative shadow Home Office minister Damian Green, after he published documents recently released by a government whistle-blower. Green was charged with “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public office”.
Following his release on bail, Damian Green said:
“I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours under arrest for doing my job. I emphatically deny that I have done anything wrong. I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret, information that the public has a right to know.
“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”
Interestingly, this charge closely resembles the spurious case brought against the local journalist Sally Murrer, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the police whistleblower Mark Kearney. According to the Press Gazette, Murrer was charged with aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring Kearney to commit the offence of “misconduct in a public office”.
UK government plans blanket monitoring of emails, phone calls, and web browsing – while insisting that “no formal decision” has yet been taken
The Times reports that the UK government is considering plans for a £12 billion database to monitor and store the emails, phone calls and web browsing records of everyone in the country. While the Home Office is reportedly at pains to insist – echoing the rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq war – that “no formal decision” has yet been taken to go ahead, The Times says that the government has already committed up to £1 billion to the project.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, I look at the arguments used by politicians to grant themselves “sweeping new powers”, and the unintended consequences that result when checks on government power are undermined.