Hold tight, please, for the criminal payments express

If any of the staff at the Press Complaints Commission take the bus to work, they’ll be familiar enough with the feeling. You wait months and months for a controversial payment to a criminal to come along and then three hove into view almost at once.

With The Guardian’s fury abating over its payment to Jeffrey Archer’s fellow prisoner, John Williams, and the News of the World’s payment to one of the so-called Beckham kidnap gang under final scrutiny from the Attorney General’s office, there might have been some drawing of breath at Salisbury Square.

Then Tony Martin walked out of prison.

On the very day that a letter was sent to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger confirming to him that no PCC action was necessary over his regular column by prisoner Erwin James, Martin was splashed over eight pages of the Daily Mirror. He’d received a six-figure sum for his trouble.

Foul, cried much of the rest of Fleet Street, some of them having had their own bids turned down.

Public interest, cried Piers Morgan. Change the law, cried Government ministers.

Here we go again, cried Guy Black. He knows the bus – and the buck – will stop with him.

Already feeling somewhat beleaguered after the recent “squabbling” among national newspapers, as you can see on page 18, the PCC director must now prepare for further battles over the coming days and weeks. Good job he has broad shoulders.

With his chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, recovering from a serious heart operation and out of action until the autumn, he’ll need them.

The key questions will revolve around the two points spelled out in clause 17 of the Editors’ Code.

Was publication of Martin’s story in the public interest? And was payment necessary for publication to take place? Similar questions will have to be asked at the Independent Television Commission if Tonight with Trevor McDonald does a similar deal with Martin, which looks likely as this column goes to press.

There won’t be easy answers in either case.

Certainly the broadsheets, four of whose editors supported The Guardian after the ruling against it, will be watching the Mirror case hawkishly for any evidence that tabloids are treated differently.

But one thing is for sure. With the threat of statutory control hovering once again – as it did when the same questions arose in 1999 over serialisation of a book about child killer Mary Bell – the industry must present a united front.

And that could be the biggest challenge of all.

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