Editors agree to halt payments to witnesses

Self-regulation of the press remains intact after editors agreed to halt payment to witnesses in current or future trials. The Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, had indicated he would drop plans to outlaw the payments if the Editors’ Code of Practice was tightened to preclude them.

The resulting changes in the Code mean:

no payments can be made to a witness in a criminal trial (or a person who may reasonably be expected to be called as a witness) once proceedings are active.
no payments can be made where proceedings are not yet active, but are likely and foreseeable.
payments can only be made where there is a demonstrable public interest.
payments should not be conditional on the outcome of a trial.

All reasonable steps must have been taken to ensure no financial dealings influence the evidence and in no circumstances should such payment be conditional on the outcome of a trial, says the Code’s new clause.

Newspapers believe these changes will not have great ramifications for the way they cover trials. The last recorded payments to witnesses came in the Fred and Rose West multiple murder trials eight years ago.

The changes follow strong representations from the newspaper and magazine industry, after the Lord Chancellor issued a Consultation Paper on witness payments last August.

He saw no need to legislate to ban payments provided self-regulation in this area could be strengthened.

Les Hinton, chairman of the Code Committee, said: “We have always agreed with the Lord Chancellor that on this issue of witness payments, the administration of justice must be paramount. We have also argued firmly that the most effective way to do this is through tough self-regulation policed by the independent PCC. The process has underlined the strength of the Code – including its ability to evolve to meet legitimate concerns about key ethical issues.”

The BBC, the ITC and the Radio Authority are also to strengthen their rules to prohibit payments to witnesses during active criminal proceedings.

Baroness Scotland, welcoming the changes, said: “The mischief of payments to witnesses and its effect on the administration of justice has been a concern for some time.

“This Government consulted last year on the detail of legislation that would make agreeing to pay, or paying, witnesses during active proceedings a criminal offence. The Lord Chancellor emphasised to the media that should the mischief persist despite the stricter rules, then the Government would be quick to legislate.”

Baroness Scotland added: “The Government was determined to see progress on this issue, and fully prepared to legislate if necessary, but it would be unfair to press ahead with enforced change in the face of this willingness to address the issue. Clearly the media shares the Government’s belief that the process of justice must not be put at risk.”

The consultation responses showed broad support outside the media for legislation to outlaw payments to witnesses.

By Jean Morgan

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