Pro bono publico is the name of the game

Lord Chancellor retreats on witness payments, says the Daily Mail. Irvine backs off, says The Guardian. Press given last chance, says The Daily Telegraph.

Some retreat. Some back-off. Some last chance.

Irvine hasn’t killed his bad bill to stop media payments to potential witnesses.

He has left it simmering on the back burner, ready to boil up again if the Press Complaints Commission does not satisfy him.

How come we are cheering when Irvine is insisting that in such cases the PCC must withdraw from editors the defence of public interest? Indeed, such payments would rank as absolute offences, to which there is no defence. Editors would be as unarguably guilty as a cyclist whose rear light had gone out.

What Irvine has come up with is a cunning ploy to have his way without party managers blaming him for guaranteeing the Government a rough ride from an enraged press.

But his bill’s ferocious penalty provisions were never the prime anxiety. Editors have always lived with the prospect of jail for contempt. What appalled them was the proposed denial of the defence of public interest in exposing the likes of Lord Archer and Mr Glitter.

Yet now Irvine is demanding that the PCC delete from Clause *16 the asterisk indicating that it is among the Code of Practice clauses which allow editors to plead pro bono publico.

Irvine’s change would force newspapers to show the door to any informants concerned to be compensated for the consequences of revealing the criminal activities of their employers, colleagues or clients. In the real world, there are never again glad confident mornings for whistle-blowers. Nor situations vacant.

If public interest justification may no longer be pleaded in Clause *16, how long before there is political pressure to disqualify it under Clauses *3, *4, *6, *7, *8, *9, *10 and *11? These include the inelegant but, alas, essential investigation techniques of subterfuge, intrusion, harassment, listening devices and long-lens photography.

Sure, we don’t want Irvine’s bill. Sure, we appreciate the efforts of senior newspaper industry figures to get him to leave it to self-regulation.

But, whether answering to the courts or to the PCC, a free press cannot be denied the right to put up the defence of public interest in exposing public enemies.

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