Clodagh Hartley trial jury asked: 'Do we want a press that simply regurgitates press releases from Government?'

The freedom of the press is at stake after a Sun reporter was dragged through the courts for  “doing her job”, the Old Bailey heard today.

Political journalist Clodagh Hartley, 40, is accused of arranging payments of £17,475 to HMRC press officer Jonathan Hall over a period spanning more than three years, in exchange for the information.

Alexandra Healy QC, for Hartley, said at the age of 36, just after the birth of her first child, she had been locked in a bitter dispute with a senior colleague.

The barrister said she was four months pregnant with her second child when she was charged by police with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

Describing the case, Healy said: “What it amounts to is she is on trial, for that criminal offence, for doing her job.

“She made no secret of what she was doing.

“First of all, she made no secret about that to the public at large, to the people who read her stories.”

Referring to use of quotes by anonymous “insiders”, the barrister said: "There she is, openly telling the readers what an 'insider' said.

“The advert 'Get cash for your stories' is on the same page.

“It is sitting there on page two, the political page, and far from it being a secret, The Sun is openly broadcasting it pays cash for stories and there on the same page Miss Hartley's story appears, and an insider is quoted.”

Healey went on to suggest Hartley's difficult relationship with her senior colleague added to the pressure she felt.

She said Hartley was acting upon the instruction of senior management to alter Hall's name to his girlfriend's on the paper's accounting system.

“Miss Hartley admits she requested that her employers paid money to Jonathan Hall and makes no secret of what she is doing.

“Miss Hartley is openly requesting that News International pay Jonathan Hall. No secret about what she is doing.

“All she could do was to request that News International pay him and we have seen that there was an authorisation process.”

Healy spoke about a culture of government “spin”, and quoted expert witness professor Roy Greenslade.

“There would not be political journalism without leaks, said Professor Greenslade.

“They are its life-blood. That is important and not just because [of] what this case has the potential to mean for political journalists, and by that I mean do we want a press that simply regurgitates press releases from the government, or because a political journalist has been given a privileged early briefing by a Special Adviser…we know that if what the Crown are saying in this case is right, that would spell the end of the free press and the end of the press freedom.

“It is said by the prosecution that the press did not need to hold the government to account, because that is the job of the opposition.

“We have to look at Miss Hartley's actions on basis of the factual circumstances at the time and how political journalism has operated for years.”

She said Greenslade agreed that there was normally a “transactional” relationship between journalist and source.

Healy reminded jurors the Telegraph won universal acclaim after paying £110,00 via an intermediary to a civil servant in exchange for the unredacted records of MPs' expenses.

She added Hartley's stories had not involved a “scintilla” of information potentially affecting national security or invading of private individual's privacy.

Since the prosecutors revised its case, Healy said it now amounted to “three articles and two stories evidenced in text messages that were never published”.

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