Tony Martin, the farmer jailed for shooting dead a young burglar, left custody yesterday and leapt straight into the arms of a national newspaper, picking up a cheque for more than £100,000 from the Daily Mirror.
The move at once provoked a dispute - and the promise of an investigation by the Press Complaints Commission.
The PCC code bans newspapers from paying criminals "except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done". A spokesman said the PCC would launch an inquiry once it had read the paper's coverage today.
Piers Morgan, the Mirror's editor, insisted that the deal did not fall foul of the press watchdog's rules. "We believe that his case raises a number of significant public-interest issues relating to crime in this country, and in particular the way that victims now appear to receive less rights than the criminals who prey on them."
He did not "condone the fact that Tony Martin killed someone" but "like a lot of people, I have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances which led up to the actions he took", he said.
Mr Morgan said Mr Martin had agreed a deal with the Mirror several months ago, and, despite more lucrative offers - said to be in the region of £400,000 - the former prisoner had stuck with the paper. "In a dishonorable world, Tony Martin was honorable."
Mr Martin was convicted of murdering 16-year-old Fred Barras in April 2000 after a trial in which the prosecution accused him of hating "gypsies" and shooting the teenager and Brendon Fearon, his accomplice, "like rats in a barrel".
The farmer insisted he had merely been defending himself and his conviction was later reduced to manslaughter on appeal. Having voiced little remorse for his crime, Mr Martin failed to be made eligible for early parole and served two-thirds of his five-year sentence.
Yesterday, there was immediate criticism of the payment. Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said it demonstrated "the level of contempt and disdain with which editors in Fleet Street hold the PCC". He added: "Piers Morgan knows that he will put on significant circulation as a result of this, so whatever they do to him at the PCC ... he will still be quids in."
This month, The Guardian threatened to quit the PCC if it censured the paper for its payments to Erwin James, a prisoner who writes a weekly column about penal policy. The PCC ruled recently that The Guardian had breached its code for paying £720 to another prisoner, who wrote a "right of reply" to Jeffrey Archer's prison diary, which was serialised in the Daily Mail.
It was revealed that day that the News of the World would be cleared of paying £10,000 to a convicted criminal who cooked up a story of a fake "plot" to kidnap Victoria Beckham.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said yesterday he planned to table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill this autumn to stop all criminals taking civil cases if they are hurt while breaking the law. They would also be barred from legal aid. The move follows the decision of the burglar shot by Mr Martin to start a £15,000 claim against the farmer with the help of legal aid. Brendon Fearon, 33, denied reports that he had decided to drop his civil claim. A statement issued by his solicitor said Mr Fearon had been advised that "his claim has good prospects of success".
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