One reporter faces carrying the can for payments to public officials at The Sun: If that's justice, then I'm a banana - Press Gazette

One reporter faces carrying the can for payments to public officials at The Sun: If that's justice, then I'm a banana

It is now clear that hundreds of thousands of pounds has been paid by Sun journalists to a variety of public officials, including police officers, over the last decade.

The paper still says “we pay for your stories” on page two and it appears that in the past little consideration was given to whether paying state employees for tips was against the law.

To be fair, use of the 13th century common law offence of misconduct in public office against journalists was only clarified by the Lord Chief Justice in March of this year.

Senior journalists, from the editor down, have been involved in making these payments, which were openly made via the company’s usual banking processes.

It is difficult to see how the top executives at the paper’s former publisher, News International, and its parent News Corp were not also responsible for what went on.

We know from other prosecutions that the News of the World, Star and Mirror titles have also paid public officials for stories.

After a police inquiry – Operation Elveden – lasting four years and costing £13m, and the arrest and/or charging of 34 journalists on suspicion of offences relating to misconduct in public office, one reporter at The Sun has been found guilty of this crime

On Friday, crime reporter Anthony France will be sentenced and he could be sent to prison.

France could well turn out to be the only conviction at trial of a journalist Operation Elveden gets. Only two other journalists have trials outstanding, the rest have either been cleared or found not guilty. Former Sunday Mirror/NoW journalist Dan Evans admitted the offence, as well as phone-hacking, but escaped jail after giving evidence against colleagues.

The thought of one editorial footsoldier carrying the can for all this strikes me as unfair. To quote Ian Hislop (speaking in different circumstances): “If that’s justice, then I’m a banana.”

France was found guilty on Friday of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office after The Sun paid a policeman £22,000 over a period of three years for tips which led to the publication of 38 stories.

He testified in court that Sun assistant news editor James Clothier 'gave him' the source and later told him that he had checked with a lawyer about the legality of using him.

Ignorance may be no protection in law, but it should be remembered that ignorance of this particular area of law was not confined to The Sun.

The Crown Prosecution Service and Old Bailey judge Charles Wide also got it wrong – as proven by the appeal judgment issued by the Lord Chief Justice in March.

He quashed the conviction of former News of the World reporter Lucy Panton for paying a prison officer for stories saying that Judge Wide misdirected the jury over the level of seriousness which was required for the charge to stick.

This led the CPS to admit that it had been wrong to charge nine journalists with the offence and revise its decision, clearing them of further action.

Mr Justice Cranston said in his judgment: “This is without doubt a difficult area of the criminal law. An ancient common law offence is being  used in circumstances where it has rarely before been applied.”

If the Lord Chief Chief Justice of England and Wales admits that he finds this area of law "difficult" it is believable that Anthony France, who had never before had so much as points on his licence, deferred to a senior colleague for legal advice on this grey area.

Cranston also said that the disclosure of the information needed to have "the effect of harming the public interest".

The France stories varied from airline pilots failing breath tests, to a story about an OAP having sex with a horse and a tale about a BA engineer with a penchant for high heels who was questioned by police on suspicion of criminal damage after being filmed walking up and down a DIY catwalk made of ceiling tiles on work time.

All of the above were only published after confirmations and further details provided by the police press office.

I don't think publishing true stories about police investigations based on information provided by police press officers can be said to be harming the public interest. 

The jury may have decided that the payments harmed the public interest by corrupting a police officer.

But we should remember that PC Timothy Edwards was a Sun source before he was introduced to France (the trial was told about an earlier story by Gordon Smart, now The Sun's Scotland editor, which was based on information provided by Edwards to another Sun journalist).

France testified that he didn't make any payments himself. He said that the company paid the money based on the recommendations of the newsdesk.

Nowadays Sun publisher News UK hammers home the dangers of paying the wrong people for stories.

Since the Bribery Act 2010 the law is more clear cut. The News UK staff handbook says: “You should not make a payment to a public official.”

But before 2010 it seems that Sun journalists were given zero guidance on this area of law. 

Media law bible McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and the Editors’ Code also had nothing to say on payments to public officials. The only prohibition was on payments to witnesses in criminal trials.

I hope that judge Timothy Pontius bears all this in mind when he decides how best to punish France when he is sentenced on Friday.