Having been convicted for his part in the Great Train Robbery and sentenced to thirty years in prison, Biggs escaped in 1966 and fled abroad. For many years the British Government actively sought his extradition. In May 2001 The Sun announced that Biggs was intending to return to the UK, that it had facilitated his return and that it had exclusive access to him. This access led to a number of articles being published. Biggs was immediately imprisoned on his return.
The Code of Practice
The Commission investigated whether the newspaper had paid Biggs or any of his associates in breach of Clause 16 (Payment for articles) of the Code of Practice. The Code states that payments for ‘stories, pictures or information must not be made directly or through agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates – who may include family, friends and colleagues – except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done’.
Although the payments were not for new information about Biggs’s crimes, the matter nonetheless fell for consideration under the Code because the story of his return and the accompanying pictures were only made possible as a result of the payments.
The newspaper’s defence under the Code
The newspaper confirmed that it had made a number of payments in order to secure Biggs’s return. It said that ‘substantial sums’ were paid to Kevin Crace who was a friend of Nick Reynolds – himself the son of the train robber Bruce Reynolds. In contracts signed by Mr Crace, the newspaper specified that the sums to be paid to him would include payments to Biggs, his son Michael and Bruce Reynolds. The newspaper was keen to point out that these payments were considerably less than had been speculated upon elsewhere in the media and explained that by far the biggest cost related to the hire of the aeroplane that brought Biggs back to the UK.
The newspaper said that it was clear to them that, having been approached by the Biggs family, Biggs would only return if payment was made to him. It maintained that it had acted in the public interest – not only had the British Government wanted Biggs to return and made an attempt as recently as November 1997 to extradite him, it had also co-operated in the newspaper’s plans to return him to justice in 2001. The newspaper had worked at all times with the relevant authorities, including the Foreign Office, the RAF and the Metropolitan Police. The newspaper’s actions, including the payments, had secured the return to justice of a notorious criminal. The terms of the Code had been fully taken into account before a decision was made to make a payment.
In line with previous investigations under Clause 16, the Commission asked the newspaper to answer a number of specific points. These included:
*What was the purpose of the payments to Michael Biggs and Bruce Reynolds? Were these ‘necessary’ in order to secure the return of Biggs to justice? Would he not have returned home otherwise?
*What use is being made of the payments to Ronnie Biggs via Kevin Crace? Is any of it, for instance, being used to help fund medical treatment for him?*Is the newspaper planning any further payments to any of the individuals involved – or were payments predicated entirely on the return of Biggs to justice?
The newspaper replied that it had been made ‘abundantly clear’ that Biggs would not return unless payment was made. The payments were essential to secure the co-operation of those around Biggs in ensuring his return. In answer to the second point, the newspaper said that it had no control over how the money paid to Mr Crace would be spent, but added that it did know that substantial legal costs had been incurred. Thirdly, the newspaper said that it intended to make no further payments to Biggs and that the object of the exercise was simply to return Biggs to this country.
Having established that various payments had been made to Biggs and his associates – at least one of whom was a convicted criminal who had served his sentence – the primary issues for the Commission to consider were whether it was satisfied that the payments were made in the public interest and were "necessary".
In previous complaints under Clause 16 of the Code the Commission has held freedom of expression – enshrined in the Code of Practice as the public’s right to know and similarly protected under the Human Rights Act – to be of very substantial importance. It has censured newspapers – such as in the cases of Victoria Aitken, Reggie Kray and Darius Guppy – where the actions of a particular publication, or the type of material obtained by payment, have been contrary to the public interest. In most cases this has been because the material published had glorified a crime. Similarly it has backed newspapers or magazines where payments have – for instance – brought new material to light or have served the public interest by highlighting possible miscarriages of justice.
In this case, the result of the newspaper’s action was to return to justice a wanted criminal who had been at large for over three decades. While there may be legitimate debate about the reasons that the criminal himself wished to return, these could not be matters for the Commission. The substantial question the Commission had to consider was whether the return of Ronnie Biggs to face the Courts in Britain was in the public interest – or was contrary to the public interest.
It was impossible for the Commission to conclude that the result of the newspaper’s payment – and the consequent return of Biggs to Britain – was against the public interest. To do so would – in effect – be to condone the continued presence of a wanted criminal abroad.
Furthermore, the Commission had to note the role of the British authorities in the newspaper’s efforts to return Biggs to justice. It is unlikely that they would have assisted in the return of a fugitive if it had been contrary to the public interest – and for the Commission to uphold a complaint would have been to second-guess the actions and motives of the authorities themselves.
There were other matters for the Commission to consider – namely whether payment was necessary, and whether there were issues relating to freedom of expression.
First, the Commission had to consider whether the actions of the newspaper – which it had concluded were not contrary to the public interest – required payment to be made. The newspaper maintained that Biggs and others involved required payment before a return to this country could be undertaken. It was impossible for the Commission to make a case otherwise: if the newspaper, or indeed the authorities, could have returned Biggs to justice without the need for payment then they would undoubtedly have done so. It could not therefore conclude that payment was "unnecessary" under the Code.
Second, the Commission had to consider a number of issues relating to human rights and freedom of expression. The Commission has always been clear that the purpose of the Code is not to prevent all those who have ever been involved in a crime, or associated in some way with those who are, to be barred from payments by newspapers or magazines in perpetuity. To do so would be to place on newspapers and magazines a regime that was not incumbent on any other form of media, and which the Government had already concluded – following a recent consultation exercise – could not be prohibited under statute because of the terms of the Human Rights Act.
Against the background of the newspaper’s action in the public interest.Again, the Commission could not therefore conclude that Michael Biggs and Bruce Reynolds should not have been paid.
Third, the Commission had to consider whether the payments themselves and the return of Biggs to justice could, in any way, be said to have glorified the crimes of which he was convicted three decades ago. Taking into account the totality of the newspaper’s coverage – which in no way sought to condone the crimes of Biggs, or to carry any self justification by him – the Commission could not consider that the crimes of Biggs or any of the other train robbers were in any way glorified. Indeed, there was a sound argument to the contrary – that the return of Biggs to justice highlighted that criminals who escaped justice, no matter what their crimes, would be treated equally and rigorously under the law.
Fourth, the Commission considered whether there was any manner in which Biggs himself could be seen to have benefited from his crimes of thirty years ago. The Commission had, inevitably, to take into account that Biggs had – in many ways – spent most of the last three decades "cashing in" on his crimes as a result of his activities in Brazil. His return to justice had – in effect – brought that to an end: in prison he is not in a position to benefit directly from his crimes. The newspaper indicated that some of the proceeds might well be used to offset legal costs – which, in the absence of such funds, would undoubtedly have been met from legal aid at taxpayers’ expense.
Some people – including, possibly, readers of the newspaper – may well have found the exercise of the newspaper, and the prospect of Biggs returning to Britain ostensibly in the view of many to obtain free medical treatment,offensive. However, it was not the Commission’s job either to make purely moral judgements or to question the motives of Biggs himself – but to apply in letter and spirit a Code which both protects freedom of expression and the public interest, and prohibits payments to criminals or their associates where both these factors are subordinate to the glorification of a crime.
Taking all these factors into account, the Commission could not establish a breach of the Code and therefore rejected the complaints. To have censured the newspaper would have indicated that the actions of the newspaper were not in the public interest, and that money was being channelled to Biggs in order, in some way, for him to benefit from his crimes. Neither argument was sustainable."