Proposed law on witness payments 'unworkable'

The Press Complaints Commission has made a trenchant response to the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s proposal to make it a criminal offence for journalists to making payments to court witnesses.

In its published response this week, the commission claims there is no proven need for legislation and no evidence self-regulation has failed. It describes the proposals as "unworkable and ineffective".

Acting PCC chairman Professor Robert Pinker said the proposed law was a "futile gesture to deal with a largely illusory problem".

In preparing its response the commission looked at six cases where the issue of payments to witnesses has arisen: the trials of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley; Jeremy Thorpe; the Yorkshire Ripper; Rose West; Gary Glitter; and school teacher Amy Gehring.

It concluded that only in the Glitter trial had press "mischief" been proved.

But, the PCC paper points out, the proposed criminal offence would not have stopped this payment, because it was made when no trial was imminent or pending. Similarly, the offers of payment in the Gehring case would not have been caught as no actual payments were made before witnesses had given evidence. Proposed legislation is therefore being predicated on the evidence of just one case where the legislation itself would have failed to deal with the perceived problem, the PCC argues.

It says other problems with the proposed offence are:

lThere is no conclusive evidence that banning payments before or during a trial would make witnesses less likely to exaggerate stories.

lThe Code of Practice goes further than the proposed law by seeking to ensure payments are transparent, and also including "offers of payment".

lThe consultation paper makes a distinction between payments by the police and by the press, without explaining why police informants should not exaggerate information because they are being paid.

lThe absence of any public interest defence ignores the experience of the West trial, where witnesses were paid for information about the behaviour of the police and social services which was arguably in the public interest.

 

Jon Slattery

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