Cleared reporter thanks Press Gazette readers for help in 'darkest hour' as 'hellish' ordeal finally ends

Former News of the World reporter Lucy Panton thanked Press Gazette readers for helping to fund her defence today as she was formally cleared at the Old Bailey.

She also spoke out for the first time about her "hellish ordeal" which began after her arrest in December 2011. Sun journalist Vince Soodin was also formally cleared by judge Charles Wide at the Old Bailey.

Panton was convicted in November 2014 of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and given a six-month suspended sentence by Wide. She was found to have paid  a prison officer for two stories about preferential treatment in prison for killer Jon Venables. 

But her conviction was quashed last month by the Court of Appeal which found Wide misdirected the jury over the level of seriousness required to secure a conviction.

Soodin was facing a retrial on the same charge after a jury failed to reach a verdict in his case last year. He was accused of paying a tip fee to police officer who revealed a child had been attacked by a fox at a school.

They were among nine journalists to be told on Friday that the cases against them were being dropped in the wake of the Court of Appeal decision.

All the charges related to payments to public officials for stories.

Panton has not been able to work as a journalist since her arrest and was not offered legal assistance by former employer News UK (previously News International).

Last October the mother of two, now aged 40, was facing a struggle to meet her £11,000 legal aid bill. An appeal publicised by Press Gazette, which did not mention her by name, raised some £14,000 in a few days, not only covering her legal contribution but helping her with other trial costs.

She thanked the Crime Reporters Association, readers of Press Gazette and the wider journalist community who in her "darkest hour" set up the fighting fund.

She told Press Gazette: "It felt like a bit of a turning point and it provided me with a huge boost to know that colleagues in the industry were were there to provide that support. Thank you."

She said that she now expects her legal aid contribution to be returned and wants to repay her contributors.

Panton also praised her barrister John Butterfield QC for fighting for the freedom of the press  by winning her case at the Court of Appeal.

Speaking outside the Old Bailey, she told Press Association: "This has been a long time coming and I want to say a massive thank you to my amazing family, friends and legal team whose unwavering support has got me through this hellish four-year ordeal."

She added: "The victory is bitter sweet as three of my colleagues are still awaiting trials. We cannot truly call this over until the witch-hunt against journalists and those who have tested authority by talking to journalists are freed from persecution. I hope they get their justice sooner rather than later."

Describing her ordeal, she said: "I was on maternity leave with my six-week-old son when the NoW closed in July 2011. At 6am on December 15 later that year, nine police officers raided my home and turfed my then six-month-old son out of his cot along with his five-year-old sister from her bed.

"I was jobless, isolated and unable to pay my legal fees. After 19 months on bail and four intrusive police interviews I was finally charged.

"As the only journalist arrested by Operation Elveden who was not having their legal bills paid by a media organisation I was left to fend for myself.

"So I cannot describe the overwhelming relief felt by me and my family when Fleet Street and beyond came to my aid. In just three days enough money was raised to pay the massive outstanding legal bills I was facing."

The hearing today was a formality where judge Wide heard from the Crown Prosecution Service that they would not be offering any evidence so the cases were dismissed.

Soodin and Panton were not required to attend the hearing and did so in the well of the court, rather than behind the bullet-proof glass of the dock where they sat during their trials.

Soodin, Panton and the other seven journalists found out they were in the clear on the same day that an Old Bailey jury found Sun journalists Neil Millard and Brandon Malinsky and former Mirror journalist Graham Brough not guilty of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

Soodin told Press Gazette: “For a lot of us, we want to attend these hearings. Hopefully they will provide some sort of closure on the ordeals that myself and colleagues have been through over the last three or four years.”

The Sun reporter was first arrested in October 2012 and has been suspended from work since he was charged 20 months ago.

 

As Judge Wide prepared to leave, Soodin attempted to address him saying "My lord, my lord…".

But the judge swept out of court.

When asked what he was trying to tell the judge, Soodin, whose mother sat in the public gallery, said: "I was a bit annoyed about that. I thought I would have the opportunity to express my anger at the conduct of the CPS and the Metropolitan Police over the last three years.

"I feel (Met Commissioner) Bernard Hogan-Howe, Alison Saunders and (former DPP) Keir Starmer should hang their heads in shame.

"They have dragged numerous journalists through the courts and caused heartache for their loved ones. They claim this was not an attack on the free press – it was.

"I'm just glad that the Lord Chief Justice brought some sanity to these prosecutions after Lucy Panton's appeal.

"Lucy Panton should be very proud of herself for challenging this witch hunt against the tabloid press."

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