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Hidden Victims of Phone Hacking - The Families of the Hacks Arrested

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At 7am yesterday a squad of Scotland Yard's finest hammered on the door of a North London flat, ordered the stunned man inside to get dressed, began a forensic search of the premises as his terrified pyjama-clad girlfriend looked on, then marched the dazed suspect out to an unmarked police car and roared off.

A dawn raid to nab an armed robber, perhaps? A notorious thief, or escaped convict? Drug-dealer, terrorist, thug? No, the man was journalist Patrick Foster, formerly of the Times, who - as was widely reported at the Leveson Public Inquiry into Press Standards in early summer, and previously covered extensively in the media - has been linked with the well-known alleged hacking of an email account more than three years ago.

There is no suggestion that any such hacking was for commercial gain, incidentally, the case all revolves around a newspaper story.

Mr Foster and his girlfriend have lived openly at the flat for several years, I'm told, he's well-known in what used to be called Fleet Street, hundreds of colleagues friends and associates have his phone numbers and email address, he's easy to get hold of.

The question is therefore, why did the Metropolitan Police feel the need to subject Mr Foster and his girlfriend to such a heavy-handed and (I know from personal experience) terrifying ordeal rather than simply make a straightforward request for him to turn up at a police station for an interview?

That question about Mr Foster's experience yesterday echoes growing disquiet in some circles about identical or worse ordeals that literally dozens of journalists and their families have undergone in the last 18 months at the hands of police involved in the so-called phone hacking scandal and the various criminal investigations that have resulted.

And now we hear that the News of the World's legal manager Tom Crone has been arrested in another dawn raid today...

First, a vital disclaimer that cannot be stressed enough - what follows is not in any way a denial of, nor intended to make light of, the dreadful pain and distress wrongly caused to many of the victims of phonehacking. No-one would begin to gainsay how awful the suffering has been for the families of Milly Dowler, the Soham victims Jessica Wells and Holly Chapman, those caught up in the 7/7 terrorist bombings, and too mant others.

It is not in any way either an attempt to equate the degree of suffering. It's not. Nor, it must be stressed, is it an excuse for nor mitigation of any crimes that may have been committed. Similarly, there is no suggestion that any alleged crimes should not be vigorously investigated.

But two wrongs don't make a right.

The ordeals imposed by police on journalists and their families caught up in the phone hacking investigations are unnecessary and disgraceful. And please do remember, we're talking about journalists here, not hardened villains with criminal records as long as their arm. Yet that is how they and their families are being treated in scenes the Stasi would be proud of.

Yes, police must investigate all allegations of crime equally without fear or favour, but there simply IS a difference between dealing with a hardened criminal and a middle-class middle-aged white-collar journalist.

Sadly there are many examples of what many might call abuses of police power and process. Almost all those arrested have suffered dawn raids by carloads of burly officers, 5am door-knocks leading to scenes where children and the sick - including in at least one case a cancer victim - have been rudely woken up by strangers and turfed from beds so their rooms can be searched.

Reporters who once accompanied detectives on police PR-boosting dawn raids on drug dealers gangsters and illegal immigrants have now found the boot is firmly on the other foot, their families and neighbours woken by hammering on the door in the pitch-dark, then being stood over in their bedrooms while they put their underpants on and get dressed.

Children's bedrooms and granny flats, the shivering and frightened occupants turfed out by burly men in dark suits, are searched just as thoroughly as every other room in the house.
Vast quantities of material has been seized and kept for months - phones, laptops, children's computers, wedding pictures, holiday snaps, personal diaries, private documents and so on.
One wife's one-woman business nearly went under because police insisted on seizing her work computer with all her accounts, contacts, orders and bills despite her opening it up to show them the contents. Another shocked mum had to watch as her children vomited in fear over the strangers marched through their home.

Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie taken away from their new-born baby at 6am and not allowed to return until late that night.

The wife of another journalist, who worked in the health service, had to cancel a speech she had been due to give at a conference because she could not persuade police that the computer they were seizing was hers, and had nothing to do with her husband.

Another was left in floods of tears after detectives insisted on pawing through and reading cherished love letters she had exchanged with her partner 25 years earlier. Indeed she was so distraught at the intrusion that she threw them on a bonfire later the same day.

The effect of being arrested and - in the early days - suspended from their jobs on the journalists themselves has for some of these otherwise-unimpeachable individuals has been no less pronounced. There have been several suicide attempts, a number of breakdowns leading to stays in mental hospitals, a whole series of illnesses.

One renowned universally-admired veteran reporter attempted to jump off a notorious suicide bridge until thankfully a passing off-duty police officer spotted him climbing the ladder. Eight months later he remains devastated, incapable of work.

Another attended an interview at a police station with her forearms heavily bandaged after another apparent suicide attempt. They and at least a further two arrestees have suffered mental breakdowns of such magnitude that they have been confined to mental hospitals for several weeks and months.

Eight months on, one family have had to cancel an overseas holiday because detectives seized their childrens' birth certificates - along with the parents' wedding photos, family videos, children's holiday snaps and so on. Detectives in the case still refuse to return such family memorabilia.

My good friend and former colleague Trevor Kavanagh wrote a harrowing piece in the Sun almost eight months ago revealing such harrowing stories. But still the Stasi-like activities go on.

There's the disgusting spectacle of a senior executive's two young teenage girls being ordered to leave their bedrooms, made to stand apart and not talk to one another, while officers rifled through their underwear drawers.

Then there is the case of the journalist who was arrested for stealing mobile phones because cops found them in his flat. The fact that he has since proved they belong to him has not resulted in an apology or the issue of a press release.

During one raid a reporter's wife, still fragile and vulnerable after years of battling cancer, was actually ordered to get up from her sickbed so police could search under her mattresses. Her husband, incidentally, wasn't even allowed by detectives who knew her condition to ring her from the police station to check on her welfare after all that trauma.

Please remember, we're talking about journalists here, not the inhabitants of a Micky Spillane novel nor - in MP Tom Watson's shameful phrase at a Parliamentary Select Committee - members of the Mafia.

The reaction by journalists elsewhere has been mixed. Schadenfreude struts the newsrooms of some of the broadsheets and the BBC, to the point where the deputy editor of the Guardian reportedly had to issue a memo instructing staff not to celebrate to arrests and charges of fellow journalists too loudly.

Sympathy on the likes of Twitter has been scant - with a vociferous and vicious minority jubilantly enjoying the hacks discomfiture and justifying their spite by claiming the British media hasn't been concerned about the concept of "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" before now.
However, there are others like the anonymous journalist Tabloidman (@tabloidtroll) who have collated and publicised the ordeal of their national newspaper colleagues and their families.
For many other journalists, there has simply been fear - fear of guilt by association, fear of contamination, and plain embarrassment over those who have been singled out.

Other perhaps well-meaning, observers say blithely that the arrested journalists will all get their day in court, and that if the police were wrong to arrest them they they will be cleared. So that's all right then...

The fast emerging problem is that the sheer weight of the police inquiries, and the complex nature of them, means that the majority of the cases could take at least TWO YEARS to get to court.

I know a journalist who was arrested nine months ago who has recently had another officer appointed to his case who admitted cheerfully that no-one had even begun to sift through the evidence against him so they were starting from scratch.

One of the journalists arrested in the early days of Operation Elveden, for example, has still not been charged many months on from his original arrest. His police bail has twice been extended and he has been warned that if he is eventually charged the earliest a court can hear the case is late 2013, possibly 2014.

That mirrors my personal circumstances. Arrested by a dawn knock on 14 July 2011, I am still under investigation, have already been bailed three times, am due to return bail again next month September 2012, but have been given no inkling whatsoever of what happens then. If I am charged, my lawyers warn it could be at least another year before any trial.

Like a number of others, I lost my job upon arrest and have been unemployed since. Like others, I see little prospect of that changing. Even if I am cleared, isn't my career in ruins? The strain is significant.

Some, particularly in Twitter and on blogs, venture the opinion that if someone is guilty of hacking a phone, or perhaps paying a public official for information without a public interest defence for doing so, then who cares if they have to wait to be sent to prison?

All very well but what about "innocent until proven guilty"? What about those who turn out to be completely innocent? What about proportionality?

One news international security guard, for example, has been arrested for conspiracy to cover up phonehacking. His "crime" appears to be obeying an order to help Rebekah Brooks carry some boxes of private belongings from the office to her car.

Some of those arrested at News International but not sacked have also apparently found themselves sidelined within the offices of the papers who have made a show of continuing to employ them while they are on bail. Others say that having their careers in what is effectively limbo for two years will harm them irreparably whether they are cleared or not.

The Metropolitan police, meanwhile, is continuing to spend tens of millions of pounds on Operations Weeting, Elvedon and Tuleta while at the same time as the Leveson Inquiry continues - which few would argue has already dramatically changed the landscape of the British media forever.

Operation Weeting et al will look very hollow if they fail to achieve convictions to match the vast expenditure in both money and officers (almost 200, currently). The political pressure to make the investigations work are enormous - more so given the accusations that the force arguably failed to properly investigate phone hacking when it was first reported to them.

Quite how the public will react if the evidence reaches the courts and is summarily tossed out is anyone's guess.

But in a way that is not the point. Journalists are above all supreme realists - they accept that, for political reasons at least, these investigations are going ahead. It's accepted that things went wrong, there are issues that must be investigated, that the police must do their job and properly, and that what is now started must be allowed to reach its conclusion.

But like this? Really? Is this level of heavy-handedness genuinely proportionate? Ransacking a teenage girl's knicker drawer?

Some will no doubt ask why it had to go that far for this to happen - especially the families who may end having their breadwinner declared innocent but have gone through two years of hell nevertheless and having to look for a new career at the end of it all.

(Tabloidman, tweeting as @tabloidtroll, has made a major contribution to this blog post.)

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