'News of the World' to escape censure by press watchdog

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The Independent Online

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) will not censure the News of the World over its controversial Victoria Beckham kidnap plot "sting", which saw five men jailed for seven months before their trial collapsed, it was reported last night.

The commission met on Wednesday to discuss the £10,000 payment made by the newspaper to a convicted conman who was alleged to have been involved in the plot. In its report, to be published next week, saysThe Guardian, the PCC will exonerate Rebekah Wade, who was the newspaper's editor at the time and is now editor of The Sun.

The case, at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, was thrown out last month after the Crown Prosecution Service said the evidence of its central witness, Florim Gashi, was unreliable. The court heard that he had infiltrated the gang on behalf of the newspaper.

But the PCC's members are thought to accept the News of The World's argument that Mr Gashi was not a witness at the time he was paid and that he was not being paid for a story relating to the crime for which he had been convicted. The PCC also believes the story was in the public interest, according to The Guardian report.

The judge in the case has said that he is to refer the News of the World to the Attorney General "to consider the temptations to which money being offered ... may have a detrimental effect on court proceedings".

At present, such payments are not illegal - though they are in contravention of new PCC guidelines that came into effect four months after the News of the World's kidnap story.

The PCC code now bans payment or offers of payment to witnesses or potential witnesses once a suspect has been arrested. In cases where nobody has been arrested but is likely to be, payments can be made only where there is a "demonstrable public interest".

Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the PCC, said yesterday: "The rules on witness payments have been considerably toughened since the News of the World broke this story."