By Dominic Ponsford
Just weeks after MPs accused it of being too “softly, softly”, the Press Complaints Commission has issued two tough judgements against national newspapers.
It has condemned The Sun for invading the privacy of Australian conman Peter Foster by publishing transcripts of private telephone conversations.
And it has upheld a complaint against the Scottish Daily Record, which paid a criminal implicated in a murder inquiry for his story.
The Sun published a series of articles on 13 and 14 December, 2002, based on recorded telephone conversations between Foster and his mother. The paper has never revealed how it obtained the transcripts.
At the time, Foster – a convicted fraudster – was at the centre of the “Cheriegate” scandal concerning advice given to Cherie Blair over the purchase of flats in Bristol.
The conversations revealed Foster discussing plans to sell his story to various newspapers.
In one excerpt, Foster told his mother Louise: “It’s a PR nightmare. It’s a PR f***ing nightmare. I’m f****d. My reputation is f****d.”
In its ruling, the PCC said it regarded eavesdropping into private telephone conversations as one of the most serious forms of intrusion into privacy. It said: “In view of the serious nature of such intrusion… the commission must set the public interest hurdle at a demonstrably high level.”
The Sun, then edited by David Yelland, argued that publication was in the public interest because the transcripts helped ensure the public was not misled further by those involved in the Cheriegate saga.
But the PCC said: “For the commission to have rejected this complaint would be unacceptably to expose all those involved in high-profile news stories to unjustified physical intrusion.”
The Sun published the adjudication in full on page 24 of Tuesday’s edition.
The ruling secures The Sun’s position as the publication with the most PCC judgements against it – 21.
The Daily Record complaint came about after it paid murder suspect Hector Dick for an interview.
The PCC judged that the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice concerning payments to witnesses had not been breached because the deal was struck after the conclusion of the trial.
But it ruled that the Record had breached the rules on payments to criminals because the information gained from the interview was not significant enough to satisfy the public interest defence.
The PCC chose, however, not to censure the Record because of a number of mitigating factors and it said that the Code of Practice may need to be amended as a result of the case.
Record ruling, page 4