Sun journalist Anthony France has had his conviction for aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office quashed by the Court of Appeal, with a retrial deemed “not in the public interest”.
The crime reporter’s successful appeal means that none of the convictions secured at trial against journalists under the Met’s Operation Elveden still stand.
The decision was delivered in less than a minute by Lady Justice Hallett today, who said: “The appeal of Anthony France will be allowed and his conviction will be quashed”, adding it was “not in the public interest to secure a retrial”.
In a statement France, who is still employed by News UK, described the three years and nine months since his arrest on 17 January 2013 as “the worst period of my life” and “sheer hell”.
The 42-year-old, from Watford, said: “I am delighted that this serious miscarriage of justice has ended today, allowing me to rebuild my life after 1,379 days of sheer hell.
“I want to thank my family for their love and support. I will always be in admiration of my legal team Richard Kovalevsky QC and Jamas Hodivala, of 2 Bedford Row, and solicitor Mandip Kumar for their tremendous professionalism.
“Then, my friends, character witnesses, Oxfam St Albans, Dennis Rice and Press Gazette helped me get through what I can only describe as the worst period of my life.
“Post trial, His Honour Judge Timothy Pontius praised me as ‘essentially a decent man of solid integrity and social responsibility’ and ‘an experienced journalist of hitherto entirely unblemished character’.”
“And he added any of the stories I was arrested over about drunk pilots, weapons, drug seizures and terrorists were ‘very much in the public interest, not surprisingly so given his experience in, and pursuit of, responsible investigative journalism’.
“Having spent more than three years and nine months fighting to clear my name, this is not a time for celebration. Nobody has ‘won’ and the public are less informed.”
A spokesperson from News UK said: “Today Anthony France’s conviction has been overturned on appeal and we are delighted that these proceedings are now over for him.
“In the course of the last five years, 19 journalists from The Sun were prosecuted as a result of Operation Elveden and not one has resulted in any conviction being upheld.”
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “The appeal court’s decision shows why there needs to be far wider protection for journalists reporting in the public interest.
“In most of the cases in which journalists were charged ordinary members of the public who made up juries clearly decided that journalists were working in the public interest.
“The police and the Crown Prosecution Service need to think more carefully before they charge journalists for informing the public. Careers and lives were destroyed by the overlong and hugely expensive police investigation.”
France was convicted in May last year after The Sun paid police officer Timothy Edwards £22,000 for 38 stories and pieces of information.
He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for two years, as well as 200 hours of community service, which he completed at an Oxfam shop in St Albans.
“There’s good reason to think that some material may not have the characteristic of confidentiality,” Kovalevsky said, describing it as “tittle tattle” and the crime reporter’s stories as “human interest”.
“The jury have to be put in a position to assess on the one side the damage to the public interest and on the other side what factors might mitigate against that – and in fact this hasn’t happened,” he said, telling the appeal court the judge had not “served the jury in the way they need to be served”.
In its judgment, the Court of Appeal said: “The judge [in France’s case] took great care to be fair to the appellant.
“He repeatedly stressed the level of misconduct to be proved had to be so serious as to be characterised as criminal and he properly identified the other elements of the offence.
“However, he did not go further. He did not give the jury any help on how to assess seriousness and harm, for example, by providing them with a list of possible factors that they might wish to consider.
“He directed the jury that ‘abuse of trust is likely to harm the public interest’ and that ‘it is the breach of the public’s trust and consequent harm to the public interest that must be proved’, as if the one (harm) automatically followed from the other (breach).
“He failed to elaborate on what is meant by ‘confidential’ material, in circumstances where… the passing of information held in confidence is not in and of itself sufficient necessarily to pass the threshold of being so serious as to amount to an abuse of the public trust in the official.”
“In our judgment, more detailed instruction as to the factors relevant to the question of the public interest were required on the facts of this case so that the jury could weigh carefully the seriousness of the breach.
“As part and parcel of that direction, the jury should have been directed to consider whether the information passed was so trivial or inconsequential that the public interest could not, in the particular circumstances of the case, be harmed.”
“…Taking any one of those criticisms in isolation, we may not have been persuaded the summing up rendered the conviction unsafe. However, we must consider their cumulative effect and read the summing up as a whole.
“Having done so, we are driven to the conclusion that the jury were not provided with legally adequate directions tailored to the circumstances of the case and that the conviction is unsafe.”
The Met told Press Gazette it “fully respects the decision of the court”.
It said Operation Elveden had resulted in 33 convictions with evidence that more than £300,000 was paid to public officials in exchange for confidential information.
A spokesperson said: “News International chose to disclose its sources to the MPS and having received what appeared to be prima facie evidence that crimes had been committed, by public officials and potentially by those involved in paying them, we were duty bound to investigate and followed the evidence where it took us without fear or favour.”