Editor David Yelland expected brickbats over the Press Complaints Commission’s decision to reject 19 complaints against The Sun for paying associates of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in order to bring him back to captivity. And he has rounded on his critics, accusing them of jealousy and hypocrisy.
The backlash began with Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe asking for an inquiry into former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s involvement in the affair.
Mirror editor Piers Morgan has been scathing, calling the PCC ruling "a complete joke". Morgan said: "What is the possible public interest in Ronnie Biggs not rotting in some Rio hospital? I find that extraordinary and that the Government should intervene is even more extraordinary."
Independent editor Simon Kelner said: "The purpose of the PCC is to ensure that the public feels confident in the ability of the newspaper industry to regulate itself. I don’t believe this cause has been helped by Lord Wakeham’s apparent ignorance of, and indifference to, the exact amount of money paid by The Sun to Biggs and his relatives.
"This matter is relevant, most especially to members of the public. I believe this leaves serious questions about the exhaustiveness and the forensic nature of the PCC inquiry into this matter."
Sunday Times editor John Witherow disagreed: "Returning a criminal on the run to justice is about the clearest definition of something that is in the public interest that you could get." A jubilant Yelland said he did not care about the criticism, adding: "You do what you think is right. It is a total victory for us." He told Press Gazette: "There is a cottage industry out there now in this country which seems employed to criticise The Sun and everything that Rupert Murdoch does. We were told in almost every newspaper, by most of our rivals, nearly all the heavies, that we would lose at the PCC.
"There is this huge hypocrisy out there and it is so very nice to be vindicated. It’s jealousy – that’s why people are trying to rip us apart."
The commission decided that the newspaper ran the story in the public interest and had to pay in order to get Biggs back to the UK.
The Sun told the PCC that to secure Biggs’ return it had paid "substantial sums" to Kevin Crace, a friend of Nick Reynolds, son of another Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds. Some money went to Biggs, his son Michael and Reynolds senior. The biggest cost was the plane that brought Biggs back.
The commission concluded: "Not only had the British Government wanted Biggs to return, it had also co-operated in the newspaper’s plans to return him to justice. The newspaper had worked at all times with the relevant authorities, including the Foreign Office, the RAF and the Metropolitan Police."
The Code of Practice allows payments to be made to criminals and their associates only in the public interest.
The commission ruled: "The result of the newspaper’s action was to return to justice a wanted criminal at large for over three decades. While there may be legitimate debate about the reasons that the criminal himself wished to return, these could not be matters for the commission."
Noting the role of the British authorities, it added: "It is unlikely that they would have assisted in the return of a fugitive if it had been contrary to the public interest."
By Jean Morgan and Philippa Kennedy