Conviction of Sun's Nick Parker means MPs' expenses scandal could not be exposed today

Let's draw a comparison between the actions of the Met Police and The Sun's Nick Parker (pictured, Press Association).

We learned last month that the Met was mistakenly given the mobile phone records of more than 1,700 News UK staff after an error by Vodafone. Instead of returning the information, the Met hung on to it for seven months placing it into a spreadsheet for further analysis.

After this gross and unlawful breach was exposed the force did not even apologise.

When Parker was handed an MP's phone and told there was evidence of criminality on it he examined it, quickly established there was no story and advised his source to hand it back.

You might think that Parker's was the lesser of these two offences. Yet he is the one who was arrested, spent more than two years on police bail and then three weeks in the dock at the Old Bailey to end up with a criminal conviction and three-month suspended prison sentence.

Parker said during his trial that journalists sometimes have to work in a grey area and take risks.

That may have once been the case in the UK, but not any more.

His conviction for “handling” stolen goods can only have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in the future.

Had Parker found the evidence of criminality on MP Siobhain McDonagh’s phone that he was told to expect, he would have had a clear public interest defence and the Crown Prosecution Service would never have pressed charges.

As it was, there was nothing on the phone which would justify the level of intrusion so The Sun quite rightly declined to publish anything from it.

Parker said he was acting on the advice of his newsdesk and in-house lawyers. 

The student who had the phone briefed Parker that messages on it mentioned information about “holding out for bribes for hard cash”.

Parker examined it, with a promise to pay £10,000 if the story panned out, but found that the text message in question was flippant.

The court heard that another text message stated: ”I will kill myself if Ed wins”. A good news line, but it was ignored because it was clearly private information and there was no public interest in publishing it.

So what will happen the next time a reporter is offered a mobile phone, laptop or briefcase containing information which they are told contains evidence of wrongdoing in high places?

If they are extremely brave they will investigate it. If they are smart, and if they have a family to think about, they will ignore it or hand it straight back to the authorities.

In 2009 the Daily Telegraph was offered a hard drive containing the expenses claims of every MP. It was stolen information, illegally obtained, which the paper paid £110,000 for.

MPs’ expenses turned out to be one of the greatest scoops in British journalism history. It ended the careers of more than 20 MPs and led to a handful being sent to jail.

Would the Telegraph investigate the MPs’ expenses story today in the same way? I doubt it very much.

The journalists involved would run the risk of arrest for: handling stolen goods, bribery and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

Even if ultimately found innocent, the consequences of arrest followed by years on police bail and then a criminal trial are punishment in themselves.

The fact that the jury acquitted Parker of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office is good news.

Prosecutors have largely failed to make the catch-all charge of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office stick, and this other charge of aiding and abetting appears to be going the same way.

When journalists are contacted by public employees with stories which are in the public interest and a newspaper pays for that information, a jury evidently does not think the journalist has broken the law.

The exception so far is the News of the World journalist convicted last month who cannot be named for legal reasons. But The Sun has reported that individual plans to appeal.

Guidance is needed from the Government and the CPS setting forth a common sense approach to the prosecution of journalists.

Nick Parker may have technically handled a stolen mobile phone, he may even have been guilty of invasion of privacy under civil law – but to charge him with handling stolen goods looks obtuse.

He clearly had no intention of selling the phone on for profit. All he wanted to do was his duty as a journalist.

Once alerted about a possible public interest story he had a duty to investigate it. When that story turned out to be a dead-end he told his source to return the phone to its owner.

As a final point, two of the stories Parker was charged with paying for involved Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood violently assaulting his then girlfriend in a High Street and the then England football captain's mum being involved in a £1,400 shop lifting spree.

In both cases the accused were given cautions. Again, what a bizarre contrast with the treatment of a journalist who briefly 'handled' a missing mobile phone before handing it back.

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