Vil­i­fied UK press feel vin­di­cated af­ter pros­e­cu­tors drop bribery case

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ALICE RITCHIE

Vil­i­fied for their dark arts since the phone-hack­ing scan­dal, the United King­dom’s popular press won a victory this week af­ter pros­e­cu­tors ac­knowl­edged that the long-held prac­tice of pay­ing sources for sto­ries was le­git­i­mate.

The Crown Pros­e­cu­tion Ser­vice (CPS) on Fri­day dropped cases against nine jour­nal­ists fac­ing trial for il­le­gally pay­ing po­lice and other public of­fi­cials for in­for­ma­tion, while an­other four were cleared in court.

At the same time, the CPS is­sued new guide­lines mak­ing clear that jour­nal­ists should not al­ways be pros­e­cuted for pay­ing for scoops.

“It is sim­ply ob­vi­ous that there are cir­cum­stances in which it can be in the public in­ter­est for jour­nal­ists to pay for in­for­ma­tion,” a for­mer head of the CPS, Ken Macdon­ald, told BBC ra­dio on Satur­day.

A to­tal of 29 jour­nal­ists have been pros­e­cuted un­der the 20-mil­lion- pound ( NT$ 928.06- mil­lion; US$30-mil­lion) po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into il­le­gal pay­ments to of­fi­cials, co­de­named Op­er­a­tion Elve­den.

But just three have so far been con­victed and only one of th­ese ver­dicts looks set to be up­held.

Pros­e­cu­tors have blamed the poor suc­cess rate in part on their use of a 13th-cen­tury of­fense, mis­con­duct in public of­fice, that is very hard to prove.

But Macdon­ald said that “not enough weight was at­tached to the public in­ter­est in free ex­pres­sion and the free­dom of the press, and

that was an er­ror.”

‘Witch-hunt’

Pay­ing for sto­ries has long been com­mon in the Bri­tish me­dia, and many of the jour­nal­ists pros­e­cuted said they had no idea they might have been com­mit­ting a crime.

Their de­fense teams re­lied on the ar­gu­ment that it was in the public in­ter­est to ob­tain and pub­lish the in­for­ma­tion.

Bri­tain’s top-sell­ing news­pa­per, The Sun, has said there was a “witch-hunt” against its jour­nal­ists and in a front page Satur­day con­demned the “Crown Per­se­cu­tion Ser­vice.”

Its as­so­ciate edi­tor Trevor Ka­vanagh led calls for all out­stand­ing cases against jour­nal­ists to be dropped, say­ing: “It’s time to call off (the) dogs.”

The Sun’s royal edi­tor, Dun­can Lar­combe — him­self cleared in an il­le­gal pay­ments trial last month — said Op­er­a­tion Elve­den was “an af­front to a demo­cratic coun­try.”

Mean­while Bob Satch­well, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the So­ci­ety of Ed­i­tors, which rep­re­sents jour­nal­ists, said the probe was an “in­cred­i­ble fi­asco.”

Dis­grace of Hack­ing Scan­dal

Op­er­a­tion Elve­den was launched in 2011, dur­ing public out­rage over the tac­tics of the Bri­tish tabloid press fol­low­ing the phone-hack­ing scan­dal.

Rev­e­la­tions that re­porters had il­le­gally ac­cessed the voice­mails of hun­dreds of public fig­ures, in­clud­ing a mur­dered school­girl, prompted Ru­pert Mur­doch to close down his News of the World tabloid in dis­grace.

Both his news­pa­per em­pire, News In­ter­na­tional, which also pub­lishes The Sun, and Trinity Mir­ror, which owns the ri­val Daily Mir­ror and Sun­day Mir­ror tabloids, have since paid out mil­lions of pounds to hack­ing vic­tims.

News In­ter­na­tional also handed over reams of emails and doc­u­ments to the po­lice, which formed the ba­sis for their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­legedly cor­rupt pay­ments to of­fi­cials.

For­mer News of the World ed­i­tors Re­bekah Brooks, who rose to be­come Mur­doch’s right-hand woman, and Andy Coul­son, later Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron’s direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, were both pros­e­cuted and both cleared.

By con­trast, 21 public of­fi­cials have been con­victed, peo­ple the CPS said were “mo­ti­vated by greed and self-in­ter­est.”

The new guide­lines make clear that of­fi­cials who break the public’s trust will con­tinue to be pros­e­cuted.

Brooks was also cleared of phone-hack­ing fol­low­ing a lengthy, high-pro­file trial, although Coul­son was found guilty and sen­tenced to 18 months in jail.

The scan­dal sparked the cre­ation of the Leve­son in­quiry into the cul­ture and prac­tices of the Bri­tish press, which rec­om­mended in 2012 that a new sys­tem re­place the ex­ist­ing regime un­der which the press reg­u­late them­selves.

How­ever, most of the main news­pa­pers have re­fused to ac­cept the new sys­tem, in­stead set­ting up their own self-reg­u­la­tion body to which they now re­fer com­plaints.

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