A Question of Timing

With the collapse of the trial of Victoria Beckham’s “kidnappers”, attention has focused yet again on newspapers’ undercover reporting methods, the stage at which the police should be involved in an investigation conducted by the media and what, if anything, the Attorney General should do to “discipline” editors.

Five émigrés spent months in jail after discussing the plot “like a silly joke among a group of young men larking about” (according to The Guardian). The talk was prompted, and reported, by a News of the World informant (a convicted criminal who had been paid £10,000 by the paper). Having been told that the investigation was a “set-up”, trial judge Simon Smith referred the matter to the Attorney General and journalist Roy Greenslade referred to the sting as “the journalistic crime of the century”. (“We stop crime of the century,” the NoW had boasted on its front page.)

Assisted by MPs, the press is beating itself up but perhaps the fault lies more with the police and Crown Prosecution Service, and any investigations should first be directed there, or indeed with those “larking about” by boasting of millions in ransom money, the need to prepare a kidnap van and visiting what the tabloids call “Beckingham Palace”.

When involved in such an investigation an editor, and his legal advisers, understandably concentrate on publishing an interesting and true story protected by enough legally admissible evidence to defeat any libel claim. In bringing a prosecution the police have to take into account the tougher laws regarding admissibility of evidence in the criminal law and the need for a prosecution to be in the public interest and with a realistic chance of success. So different tests apply.

An editor’s role is not to act as an agency of the state. For example, it has been reported that investigations by the NoW’s Mazher Mahmood can cost over £30,000 – money that is not reimbursed by the police if the prosecution is successful. And bringing in the police can stop any publication whatsoever as the sub judice rules bite. The NoW found this when it broke a story concerning a large-scale conspiracy to distribute counterfeit money. “We smash £100 million fake cash ring” was the headline – but the paper had told the police, who chose to arrest the defendants the day before publication. The article contained an account of the investigation by the paper including reference to the criminal past of the villains – which led the trial judge a year later to throw the case out, and the Attorney General to prosecute. The paper was fined (in 1998) £50,000 for contempt of court. A harsh decision.

So bring the police in too early, no story. At the end, your techniques can get rubbished. A rock and hard place. Despite all the criticism NoW was able to point out that its star investigator had been successful in bringing over a hundred wrongdoers to justice.

But the big unanswered question is whether the police are capable of striking the right balance when prosecuting cases tainted with celebrity. In the Beckham case, the paper handed over its evidence and the police flew to Romania and Germany during the inquiry. The CPS must have been satisfied it could successfully prosecute – but cases involving celebrities go wrong far too often, as the Paul Burrell case showed.

The lesson to be learnt is, perhaps, that newspapers are there to expose wrongdoing rather than to incite prosecutions or publish unnecessary details, and the police need to keep impartial and not get seduced by the glamour of celebrity into pursuing weak cases. So it is usually best to work with the papers’ legal advisers and get the story published, and then pass the documents to the police and let the CPS decide what to do next.

Duncan Lamont is a media partner at Charles Russell

by Duncan Lamont

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