How a reporter escaped jail but had their life destroyed for publishing two public interest stories about a killer

Another day at the Old Bailey watching the slow-motion car crash of a journalist's life being destroyed.

There was huge relief yesterday among the many colleagues who had turned out to show their support when the first reporter convicted as a result of Operation Elveden escaped a custodial sentence.

But we shouldn’t play down the severity of the punishment they have received.

Three years from arrest to trial with their life and career in total limbo.

Some 19 months on police bail.

A reputation forever tarnished and a family ruined financially (because this reporter worked for the News of the World, News UK has refused to pay their legal fees and they have been unable to work as a journalist).

Working for a “ruthless” boss who they described in court as a “tyrant” the reporter was put in touch with a source who had already been vetted by the newsdesk in August 2010.

They said: “I was told to do the story with a Jon Venables tipster and his name was Adam [later named as prison officer Scott Chapman].”

The tipster had already been used by The Sun and was on the News International payments system.

The two stories in question were undoubtedly in the public interest.

They were about Venables who, aged 10, murdered a two-year-old. He was in prison again after looking at extreme pornography involving children of a similar age. The prison authorities were, the reporter said, “making his life as comfortable as possible”.

The public has a legitimate interest in knowing how he was being punished.

The special treatment for Venables, which included privileged access to a TV and boardgames, was – according to the tipster – “impacting on the smooth operation of the prison”.

The reporter was convicted because, unlike fellow defendant Tom Savage of the Daily Star Sunday, the jury believed that they had known the source was a prison officer when they arranged to pay them for the leaks.

The judge made a great point of saying that the reporter knew full well what a betrayal of public trust this was.

But I have the 2007 edition of Macnae’s Essential Law for Journalists open in front of me.

A conscientious reporter who read it cover to cover (all 600 pages) would not see a single word in it about payments to public officials. Neither are these mentioned in the Editors’ Code.

The offence of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office was first used against a journalist, to my knowledge, in 2008 against Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer. But that absurd case (which involved no money, just off the record chats with a police officer) was thrown out of court.

The Editors’ Code only includes guidance about not paying children or witnesses in court cases. Payments also cannot be made to criminals for stories which glamorise crime, the code states.

Ignorance is no defence in the law but surely any reasonable person can see that the reporter’s actions were at least partly excusable under the circumstances.

Who were the victims in this crime that was so serious it warranted a six-month prison sentence (albeit suspended, partly out of consideration for the reporter’s young family), 150 hours community service and three months tagged evening curfew?

The prison system itself and Jon Venables, both completely legitimate targets for journalistic criticism.

There was no suggestion that the reporter in the dock yesterday corrupted prison officer Scott Chapman themselves. He was already well established as a press tipster when they had their brief dealings with him.

The Contempt of Court Act is largely stifling discussion about the wider issues in play here.

But a debate is urgently needed about the proportionality of police investigations into journalists, the punishments meted out and whether the wider public interest is being served.

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