A leading criminal lawyer has questioned the severity of the sentence handed down in the trial of the Sun’s Nick Parker.
The reporter was given a three-month suspended sentence yesterday after being found guilty of handling stolen goods.
Parker was tasked by his newsdesk with meeting a member of the public who claimed to have found an MP’s mobile phone on a train. The contact claimed that there was evidence on the phone suggesting involvement in bribery.
Parker accepted the phone, examined its contents, and then returned it to the contact after finding there was no publishable information on it.
Angus McBride of Kingsley Napley, who represented Rebekah Brooks in the phone-hacking trial, told Press Gazette: “Putting aside whether it would have been in the public interest to pursue Mr Parker for handling the phone (in the absence of a misconduct allegation this is debatable) a first offence of handling stolen goods rarely results in a custodial sentence even if the items handled had come from a domestic burglary.
"A custodial sentence (albeit suspended) illustrates further the predicament journalists now find themselves in, treated more severely than common criminals."
In August 2014 a Sun reporter charged with the same offence under similar circumstances was cleared by a jury.
Ben Ashford was tasked with looking at a phone which had been found in a nightclub by a member of the public.
He found "flirty" texts on it between a celebrity and the phone’s owner but no story appeared and Ashford returned the phone before it was reported stolen.
In that case, while Ashford was charged with handling stolen goods – the person who stolen the phone escaped with a caution.
At the time, media lawyer Gavin Millar QC said: “These prosecutions are chilling freedom of expression in this country and causing anxiety among journalists. They are having a very detrimental effect on journalism as a whole. The fear is that they will ultimately deter journalists from doing their jobs, which is a very serious consequence.
"There should be a review of the reasoning that led to the decision to prosecute Ben Ashford, and prosecutors should think very carefully about what other cases are being pursued against journalists.
"It's very worrying that the police and CPS are pursuing this number of prosecutions with such zeal, many of which are really quite trivial matters.”
Two other Sun journalists who processed information relating to the missing mobile phones were also arrested and spent around a year on police bail only to have the charges dropped by police.