A set of clear guidelines on the factors to be used when deciding whether to prosecute journalists is to be drawn up, the Director of Public Prosecutions told the inquiry into press standards today.
Keir Starmer said there is currently no specific CPS policy or guidance relating to the prosecution of journalists, but outlined the various provisions prosecutors have to take into account.
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He told the Leveson Inquiry that it would be “prudent” to have a policy that sets out “in one place” the factors to be taken into account when trying to decide whether or not to charge a journalist.
Starmer said various factors are considered when weighing up prosecutions against journalists who may try to rely on a public interest defence, including: the relative gravity of the potential offence and the harm caused; the element of corruption in committing the offence; and whether the conduct in question included threats or intimidation.
He said lawyers also looked at the impact of the conduct on the course of justice; whether the public interest in question could have been served by legal means; and the impact on the victim or victims of the conduct in question.
Starmer announced an interim policy to be put in place and consulted on for 12 weeks before a formal policy is drawn up.
“It seems to me that it would be prudent to have a policy that sets out in one place the factors that prosecutors will take into account when considering whether or not to prosecute journalists acting in the course of their work as journalists,” he told the inquiry.
“Therefore what I propose is that an interim policy will be drafted. That interim policy will draw on the existing principles and reflect the existing approach but put it in one place. “That will make things clearer.”
He said they would consult on the interim policy for 12 weeks – the usual consultation period – then take into account responses and amend it if necessary.
“The interim policy reflects current policy. It comes into force with immediate affect,” he told the inquiry. “I hope to have that ready within a matter of weeks.
“I have given consideration to the position should anybody fall to be considered for prosecution during the period of consultation and before the final policy is published.
“And it seems to me they would fall to be considered under the interim policy, but as a safeguard, I would want us to look again at any decisions made once the final policy was in place to ensure that decisions were consistent with the final policy.”
Lord Justice Leveson said the inquiry had heard evidence from “more than one or two” witnesses suggesting there was a “misunderstanding as to the way in which prosecution policy operates in this country”.
On Monday, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said of the newspaper’s use of private detective Steve Whittamore, who was convicted of illegally accessing data in April 2005: “We didn’t realise what they were doing was illegal.
“There was a very hazy understanding of how the Data Protection Act worked and this was seen as a very quick way of obtaining phone numbers and addresses to corroborate stories.
The inquiry has heard the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) uncovered a “treasure trove” of evidence linking newspapers to the sale of private data when it searched Whittamore’s office in March 2003.
But Dacre said he was not sure an investigation into the Mail’s use of Whittamore was warranted at the time.
“We did not believe it was illegal. Our journalists were asking for information and I am not sure the implications of the Data Protection Act were understood at that stage.”
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