Irvine backs plan to ban chequebook journalism

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The Government is to end some of the worst excesses of "chequebook journalism" by introducing legislation banning payment of witnesses.

In proposals likely to be unveiled within the week, the Government will seek to stop the press "buying up" witnesses before, during or after a trial. The plan, likely to be highly controversial within sections of the media, could lead to a draft bill in the next parliamentary session.

Last night sources within the Lord Chancellor's department confirmed that Lord Irvine had advised the Government that he believes the self- regulation operated in this area by the Press Complaints Commission is not working. The recommendations follow his consideration of the report of the National Heritage select committee on the subject, which was chaired by Gerald Kaufman.

"The Government's proposed legislation will probably be announced within a week," said the source.

There was speculation last night that the legislation might take the form of a new criminal offence or else an amendment of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act. Any law would be likely to cover payments in kind as well as a straight forward cash deal.

Either way, the proposals are likely to anger those sections of the media involved in the buy-up of high-profile witnesses such as those involved in the trial of Rosemary West. It is believed that a total of 19 different witnesses received media payments for their stories after the conclusion of the 'Cromwell Street' trial. By their nature, these agreements are usually agreed well in advance of the trial's conclusion.

The proposals are only the latest concerning the press to involve Lord Irvine. Earlier this month he sparked controversy by suggesting the PCC should use "prior restraint" to curb exposures regarding the private lives of public figures such as Robin Cook. His remarks, in an interview with the New Statesman, caused the Prime Minister to make it clear the Government was opposed to a privacy law by legislation or through the "backdoor" application of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Lord Irvine is to spend pounds 2.5m recruiting staff for a think-tank within the policy and judicial appointments groups of the Lord Chancellor's department. The money will come from current budgets, a spokesman said.