Irvine pledges new curbs on chequebook journalism

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The Independent Online
CHEQUEBOOK journalism payments to court witnesses are to be outlawed, Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, announced yesterday.

He said in a Lords written reply that the Government had accepted an all-party select committee call for payments to witnesses and pre-trial publicity to be controlled by legislation.

Concern over the issue came to a head during the trial of mass murderer Rose West when a number of witnesses were "bought up" by newspapers.

Lord Irvine said: "The Government is committed to maintaining an appropriate balance between the due administration of justice on the one hand and freedom of speech on the other. It has concluded that the committee's recommendations maintain that balance and has therefore accepted them in principle ...

"Media coverage of the trial itself will be unaffected," he said. "But payments to witnesses, or potential witnesses, by the media run a real risk of encouraging witnesses to exaggerate their evidence to make it more newsworthy, or to withhold relevant evidence from the court and make it available as an exclusive to a newspaper. If the existence of a media contract emerges in court, juries may wonder if the witness's evidence has been affected by the contract. This may not be the case, but suspicion that it is could be enough to cause a miscarriage of justice."

The select committee report also called for strengthening of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, "so that it covers the collective or cumulative effect of pre-trial publicity in risking prejudicing a trial, as well as the effect of individual articles". Lord Irvine said: "This means that newspapers could not escape liability, as one case held they could, because a number of them had acted in a similar way and together had caused the prejudice.

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