Minister warns: 'Steps out of line and all bets are off'

Baroness Scotland: "one more case of payments and we’ll legislate"

Editors have been warned that if one steps out of line – and sanctions payments to witnesses in criminal trials – then "all bets are off" and the Government will ask Parliament to outlaw them.

The warning was given by Baroness Scotland in an exclusive interview with Press Gazette after the Lord Chancellor gave the media one last chance to strengthen self-regulation and avoid statutory curbs.

As the Editors’ Code Committee prepares to respond to the end-of-the-year deadline set by Lord Irvine, Baroness Scotland, a minister in the Lord Chancellor’s Department, said it was up to the Press Complaints Commission and other regulators to decide whether to devise sanctions against editors who broke a strengthened code.

"We are making no suggestions," she said. "It is a matter for the profession. That is what self-regulation is all about." But she warned: "If there is another case where there has been a payment to a witness once proceedings are active, then all bets are off and we will legislate."

The end-of-the-year deadline set by Lord Irvine would allow time for the Government to introduce legislation in the next parliamentary session, which opens in November.

Baroness Scotland would not say whether civil servants had been asked to prepare legislation, but she did say that the Government felt it had consulted enough to proceed with the introduction of a bill if it judged self-regulation was not working or the proposals of the Editors’ Code Committee were insufficiently "robust".

If a bill is introduced, it will be tougher than the one the Government proposed in its March consultation paper. Then, payments and agreements would have been made a criminal offence. Now, this would be extended to include offers of, but not requests for, payments. Journalists could be jailed for up to two years and face unlimited fines if found guilty.

The Government’s decision to back down from introducing legislation immediately represents a victory for editors, newspaper bodies and the commission, which convinced Lord Irvine to give self-regulation a last chance to show it worked.

Baroness Scotland said the breakthrough was the acceptance, for the first time, by the industry that it could no longer claim the public interest was served by making payments to witnesses in trials.

"That is a big shift. If we have agreement now it can bite more quickly than it would bite under legislation," she said.

The new rules will involve rewriting the Code of Practice to create an "absolute ban" on payments.

In a further significant move, the Government wants the code to be extended to include "possible future proceedings".

Baroness Scotland said that, in recognition of the proper role of investigative journalism, payments in possible future proceedings would be allowed if editors were able to demonstrate they were in the public interest.

Payments or offers of payments would have to be disclosed to the prosecution and defence.

But she said payments should not be made once criminal proceedings became active. There will be no bar, however, to paying witnesses for their stories once trials are over.

"What we are trying to do is change the culture so that journalists and editors will not even consider making an offer, or agreeing to pay if an offer has been made to them."

For the first time, voluntary controls over payments will apply to broadcasters. Baroness Scotland said the BBC, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority will have to produce their own code on similar lines to the PCC by the end of the year.

She added: "If we find, contrary to their assurances, that the rules they propose are not robust or do not incorporate all the things we see as a prerequisite of self-regulation, then we will legislate."

By David Rose

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