CPS defends 'incompetent' prosecutions of journalists: 'We must uphold the law without fear or favour'

The Crown Prosecution Service has hit back at criticisms over its decision to subject journalists to expensive trials that are not in the public interest.

The CPS last month chose to re-try four Sun journalists accused of making corrupt payments to public officials after a jury failed to reach verdicts following a three-month trial.

This decision prompted criticism from a number of newspapers and columnists, including in The Sun, The TimesThe Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Press Gazette.

The Times's "Trial and Error" editorial on 24 January said there is "no conceivable public interest in pursuing this case; it bears all the hallmarks of a thwarted, sometimes incompetent service wanting to settle scores with tabloid journalism".

The trial of six Sun journalists at Kingston Crown Court resulted in two acquittals and the remaining four journalists being found not-guilty of some charges, but facing a retrial on others.

The Times said: "The feebleness of this process became all too plain in the case of one of the journalists, which centred on an alleged £300 payment to an unnamed prison officer for a four-paragraph story that the reporter did not even write. Fortunately the reporter was acquitted.

"It is difficult, however, to escape the conclusion that the CPS is a victim of tunnel vision. While it deploys its limited resources to investigate 99 journalists, taxpayers are far more concerned about the successful prosecution of suspected murderers, rapists and terrorists, not to mention perpetrators of female genital mutilation.

"The latest trial at Kingston upon Thames crown court lasted 12 weeks. The jury selection process alone cost £100,000. The jurors cleared two defendants but were unable to reach verdicts on four others, even after 49 hours of deliberation. It was a flop, part of a pattern of hung juries. That has not dented the determination of the CPS to plough on with a retrial."

In a blog on Friday afternoon, CPS chief executive Peter Lewis defended prosecutions of journalists by saying that such cases were "a tiny fraction" of prosecutions.

He wrote: "The underlying question posed by your leader, however, is I suspect a deeper one – whether the compliance of journalistic endeavour with the law is a matter that should merit the attention of prosecutors at all?

"A free press is a vital guarantor of our democracy and the rule of law. Courageous and diligent journalists help expose scandals and hold public authorities and individuals to account.

"Indeed the recent rise in the number of serious sexual cases is, in part, a result of the excellent work undertaken by journalists in this newspaper in exposing the scandal of child protection in some of our cities."

He said the law protected journalists who broke the law in pursuing public interest investigations, but added that "journalistic practices are not above the law either".

He said the Leveson Inquiry, which investigated the phone-hacking scandal, "revealed serious questions over the techniques used by some journalists".

He added: "In these circumstances a police inquiry was inevitable as was the subsequent duty on prosecutors to decide if the evidence was sufficient to prosecute as the law stands."

Lewis said the police investigations that followed resulted in the conviction of ten journalists, while another accepted a caution.

Seven others have been acquitted of all matters while one has seen all matters against them dropped before reaching trial.

No further action was taken against 25 other journalists who had been subjected to police investigations.

He said: "It is of course right that the CPS is subject to scrutiny and comment.

"But just as the vital role of a free, independent, press must be protected and the difficult line that journalists have to follow in pursuit of the truth understood, so too must our role be understood in upholding the rule of law without fear of, or favour to, anyone."

Last month, Press Gazette revealed that the Metropolitan Police has spent £33.5m, excluding legal fees, on investigating journalists under operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta.

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