Martin case: 'Continual breaches of this part of the code are worrying'

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Clause 17 of the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct is seemingly very straightforward.

It states: "Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information must not be made directly or through agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates - who may include family, friends or colleagues - except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done."

So what is the public interest? The code does not define the term in its entirety but offers examples. The three instances it lists are: detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour; protecting public health and safety; and preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation. It adds that there "there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself" thus "the commission will, therefore, have regard to the extent to which material has, or is about to, become available to the public".

The Daily Mirror's payment does not appear to fall into any of these categories - though the list of public interest definitions is not exhaustive. The argument of Piers Morgan, the editor, is that by airing the views of the man at the centre of a national debate - over the rights of a householder when faced with a violent burglar, and the legal limits of self defence - he is acting in the public interest.

Robert Thomson, editor of The Times, described Mr Morgan's explanation as "both fascinating and insincere". Continual breaches of this part of the code are worrying, he said. There is a risk that at some point it will cease to hold water - and the code "should hold water for editors who take self-regulation seriously".

He added: "Any editors who are in flagrant breach [of clause 17], no matter how ornate or elaborate his excuses are, should be ashamed of themselves."

Regarding the payment to Tony Martin, he said: "It is unfortunate that one newspaper has chosen to breach an understood code in a craven attempt to justify buying a debate that would have taken place anyway."

Two years ago, the PCC rejected a complaint after The Sun paid money to the train robber Ronnie Biggs, whom it brought to Britain from Brazil, and some of his associates. His return to justice - and to prison - was a matter of sufficient public interest, it ruled.

In 1998, The Daily Telegraph was cleared after it paid to serialise a book by Sean O'Callaghan, a convicted IRA terrorist.