UPDATE: The jury has retired in this case and is currently considering its verdict
How can there be a conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office when only one person has been charged with conspiracy?
This was the question posed to the jury as lawyer for Sun reporter Vince Soodin (pictured: PA) summed up the defence yesterday.
With Soodin sat in the dock at the Old Bailey flanked by two security guards, William Harbage QC read out the charge against him. It is alleged that Soodin “between 18 June and 20 July 2010 conspired to commit misconduct in a public office”.
He said that the only alleged co-conspirator is police sergeant James Bowes.
Harbage said: “I submit to you that it is a somewhat contrived charge. Mr Soodin can’t commit the offence of misconduct in a public office because he is not in a public office.
"James Bowes can, he is in a public office and you know he did. He pleaded guilty to that offence.
“Mr Soodin is not in the same position as Mr Bowes, a serving police officer, different considerations apply.
“Mr Bowes’ motivation is perfectly clear, money – plain and simple…Mr Soodin’s motiviation was getting a public interest story and trying to get it in the publication.
“It’s what he does on a day by day basis as a jobbing reporter on the Sun. That’s all he’s interested in. Is it a story? Has it got legs? Has it got a chance of publication?”
Harbage noted that Bowes has pleaded guilty to the offence of misconduct in a public office, but not to any conspiracy charge.
Noting that a conspiracy is “an agreement between two or more persons” to proceed in a course of conduct which would result in committing a crime, he said: “For there to be a conspiracy, there’s got to be an agreement. There’s got to be a meeting of minds between Mr Bowes and Mr Soodin…
“Vince Soodin is in the curious position of being charged with a conspiracy with an other person, but that other person – Mr Bowes – has not been charged with the conspiracy with him. It’s rather odd”.
'Utter nonsense' that Soodin 'cultivated' police officer as a source
The court heard that Bowes was the person who initiated the contact with The Sun on the two main matters which the charge relates to. One was a tip off that a three-year-old child had been attacked by a fox at a school in Brighton and one concerned information about a search for the victims of serial killer Peter Tobin.
There was then no contact between the pair from December 2010 until they were both arrested on 7 August 2012
Harbage said: “The prosecution case is that Vince Soodin ‘cultivated’ James Bowes as a valuable source, that he used John Bowes a ‘stooge’. It is utter nonsense.
“That may be the reason why the word cultivated was not present in [prosecution barrister] Mr Wright’s closing speech. Perhaps because he realised the Vince Soodin was doing nothing of the sort.
“If Mr Soodin was cultivating James Bowes why wasn’t he pressing him for information in August 2010, September 2010, October, November…
“Why wasn’t he pressing him for information in 2011 and 2012 if he was cultivating this supposedly valuable source?
“The evidence shows that Vince Soodin used information from 'Tipster Mike' on two stories with significant public interest.
“The information came to Mr Soodin in the same way as it would from any other tipster.”
He drew the jury’s attention to an advertisement which appeared in The Sun headed “get cash for your stories” which Bowes had apparently responded to.
'A diligent, hard working and decent journalist'
On the question of the public interest, Harbage pointed to the definitions which are printed in the Editors’ Code which include “detecting or exposing crime” and “protecting public health and safety”.
He noted that the first story Bowes contacted The Sun about concerned “a school allowing a fox on the premises and a three year old child being bitten as a result”.
Harbage noted that the story came at a time when fox attacks, and numbers, were very much in the news and a subject of public debate in the press and Parliament.
The second story was about serial killer Peter Tobin and police efforts to find the bodies of his victims. Tobin was convicted of a third murder in December 2009, but there was speculation that he could have 20 further victims.
He was the subject of a Crimewatch appeal in July 2010.
Harbage said: “This was clearly a public interest story.”
Soodin’s third contact with Bowes was in December 2010 and concerned the policeman's attempt to expose the fact that a police inspector he knew had used the gay dating website Grindr. The contact was referenced in Soodin’s notebooks at the time.
Harbage said: “It’s significant because Vince Soodin didn’t run with the story. It wasn’t in the public interest.
“He is a diligent, hard working and decent journalist. Somebody who has worked hard to get where they are…He’s not a criminal.”
Policeman was paid with News International cheque
He noted that Soodin had “not tried to hide anything at all” about what he had done. And he noted that when Soodin realised Bowes was a police officer he openly referred to him in emails to numerous colleagues as a “cop”.
In one email to colleagues he spoke of “tipster Mike – the policeman who wants to remain anonymous”…in others he referred to his “cop contact” and a “Sussex copper”.
Harbage noted that that the payment for Bowes was approved by his desk editor and ended up being £500, rather than then £750 Soodin had originally suggested as the rate for an “inside page lead”.
The payment was made via a cheque headed News International Supply Company Ltd.
Harbage said that the payment was “all above board” and the £500 was the only payment made by Sun parent company News International to Bowes.
He noted that “lawyers would examine every story” at The Sun and that everything Soodin did in relation to the standing up the story was done openly.
“Do you really think that Vince Soodin is going to conspire to commit a crime and leave it open for everybody to see?
“Is the culture at The Sun that all were involved in crime, or at least nobody cared?
“I would suggest that the answer is no. The prosecution has produced no evidence of that at all. They’ve called no witnesses from The Sun at all. The only evidence from anybody at The Sun comes from Vince Soodin."
The jury is expected to retire to consider its verdict today following the judge's summing up.