'Snooping journalists forced Ken Clarke to move bank account'

 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was forced to move his bank account after he discovered journalists were trying to access personal information, he said today.

The Justice Secretary said reporters attempted to bribe staff at his village branch soon after he was appointed chancellor in 1993.

He told the Leveson Inquiry such antics would have been regarded as "perfectly customary" at the time.

In further evidence, he told the inquiry that Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer QC was drawing up guidance over when journalists who pay for stories could be prosecuted under the Bribery Act.

Recalling how he was forced to move his bank account, he said: "Journalists were trying to bribe the staff of the village branch where I had my bank account," he said.

"This would have been regarded as perfectly customary in those days."

He said private and confidential information was "fairly readily available" in the outside world, "as long as you were prepared to pay for it".

But, in certain cases, he said bribery could be justified, citing the Daily Telegraph's series of stories exposing the MPs' expenses scandal as an example.

"I do think journalists are entitled to bribe in an extreme case if it's the only way in which they can get information about some major public scandal," he said.

He told the inquiry the DPP would always decide if a prosecution was in the public interest before a suspect was charged.

"If the Daily Telegraph used bribery to obtain evidence of MPs cheating on their Parliamentary expenses, I would be deeply shocked if anybody had prosecuted the journalist for using bribery," Mr Clarke added.

But he told Lord Justice Leveson he did not know if the paper paid for the information.

"The DPP will not prosecute unless there is a public interest in prosecuting," he added.

Earlier, Mr Clarke told Lord Justice Leveson people were put off going into politics because they did not want to open their private lives to scrutiny.

Meanwhile, politicians were influenced by a "noisier and noisier" press, he said, claiming newspapers could "drive weak governments like sheep".

"There certainly are cases ... where policy decisions are taken primarily because people, the politicians and ministers responsible, are fearful of the media reaction," he said.

"What editors are mainly interested in is exerting influence on non-media type political issues.

"They can certainly drive a weak government like a flock of sheep before them sometimes, in some areas."

He described the relationship between journalists and politicians as "love-hate" and said the press was now "noisier" than ever, claiming papers wielded greater power than parliament.

He believed would-be MPs were deterred from standing for office by the potential intrusion into their private lives.

"A lot of people are drawn away from politics because they don't want to accept the level of exposure," said Mr Clarke.

Mr Clarke made clear his disdain for the "obsession" of recent governments with newspaper headlines and warned it could lead to administrations making "stupid decisions".

"When taken to excess, this terror of the tabloids and this subservience to the media doesn't give any success to the politician who does it.

"You may win some temporary praise but you make stupid decisions in government and they turn on you eventually when it all starts to mount."

There needed to be a "free, aggressive and irreverent" media which challenged the Government, he said.

John Major's government had used civil servants in press roles, he said, but that had been swept away by Alistair Campbell and Labour in 1997 who saw it as "naive and amateurish".

The "ordinary timeless relationship" of mutual need between politicians and Westminster journalists had been overtaken by the "highly political PR operations" of political parties and newspaper proprietors, he complained.

"A whole lot of political appointments swept in. It was a pretty marked change of culture," he said of the Labour administration from 1997 - though he added that he got on well with Tony Blair's former spin chief.

"Twenty-first century governments have been obsessed by newspapers and totally exaggerated the importance of the 24-hour-a- day interaction with what the newspapers are saying and writing about the government," he told the inquiry.

He later added: "The present incestuous relationship between the two is quite peculiar" and based on both sides "believing that the daily headlines really matter to an extraordinary extent".

The Justice Secretary said he believed media regulation "stands a good chance of being properly considered" after being asked whether he feared MPs would "sweep in to take their revenge" for the exposure of the expenses scandal.

"I think they are greatly outnumbered by the number of MPs who would be terrified at the thought of annoying the newspapers," he said.

There was a "broad body of MPs who believe extremely strongly in the freedom of the press and also believe extremely strongly in proper regulation", he added.

"So I think it stands a good chance of being properly considered."

Mr Clarke repeated his claim that tabloid outrage at high-profile crimes leads more criminals being jailed.

"If the tone of the newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we would have 30,000 fewer prisoners," he said.

"Because the prisons are so overcrowded and it is so difficult to do anything in there, we are steadily toughening up an underclass of criminals who keep going round and round in the system and I blame the newspapers for that."

He believed judges and magistrates feared media criticism if they gave offenders light sentences, so sent them to prison to avoid condemnation.

"The clamour from particular newspapers for tougher and tougher Criminal Justice Acts has been responded to," said Mr Clarke.

"Even the courts respond to the strident demand all the time for ever longer sentences, ever tougher policies.

"You can see the judiciary and magistrates responding to the criticism they would otherwise come under in individual cases if they don't keep imposing stiffer sentences."

Mr Clarke branded the industry's self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a "useless joke".

But he feared a high-profile replacement for the PCC could be inundated with work as upset readers complained about stories and warned there was little cash to fund the body.

"I owe it to my Treasury colleagues to say that the Government has no money," he said.

"My one worry is that people are so sensitive to things which are just not expressed in a way they like, so I think the average local newspaper, let alone the nationals, could find themselves bombarded with complaints."

PA

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