More opposition to witness law

Rasaiah: "no prior discussion"

The Newspaper Society is the latest press group to declare its opposition to the Lord Chancellor’s proposals to make it a criminal offence for journalists to make payments to witnesses in court cases.

It has joined the Press Complaints Commission and the Society of Editors in condemning the proposed law, which could see journalists jailed for up to two years and face unlimited fines.

Santha Rasaiah, the Newspaper Society’s political, editorial and regulatory affairs director, warns that although regional newspapers are not involved in making payments to witnesses in high-profile court cases, a new law designed to stop the practice could have a big impact on local press reporting.

She says in the society’s response to the proposals: "The creation of the new offences could unnecessarily penalise uncontroversial conduct.

"Media reports of many incidents, accidents, disasters, riots, and media investigations that call into question the conduct of public services, professions, professionals and local companies, could all involve conduct that requires journalistic contact with people who are potential witnesses, including victims."

The society says the Government has failed to show the existence of any problems connected to media payments to witnesses that present a threat to the administration of justice.

It also claims the Government has failed to show that press self-regulation has been unresponsive or ineffective.

The society also opposes new controls for changes to the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 to empower trial judges to make costs orders against third parties and for curbs on lawful pre-trial publicity.

It says the new controls were announced in a press release accompanying the Lord Chancellor’s proposals without any offer of consultation. Rasaiah says: "We are concerned that such proposals should be put forward in a press release with no further explanation or prior discussion." On pre-trial publicity, the society says it has already made clear its opposition to any new controls.

"Regional newspaper editors and journalists, with the assistance of their legal advisers, daily negotiate the law of contempt, court reporting restrictions and libel in reporting incidents that give rise to legal proceedings as well as the legal proceedings themselves.

"The Code of Practice upheld by the PCC stipulates further requirements that apply to reports of crime, criminal investigations and trials. Few media reports occasion any complaints and still fewer result in any findings adverse to the media.

"No evidence has been produced to justify either new legislation or new self-regulatory controls upon lawful publication." The society also says it opposes the proposal to empower courts to order a third party to pay costs which his or her unnecessary or improper act has caused a party or parties to incur.

Jon Slattery

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