Newspapers paid West witnesses

Murder trial: Wakeham concerned at tabloids' cash deals
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The Independent Online


Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, is preparing to make a strong attack on the press over payments to witnesses in the Rosemary West trial.

The former Cabinet minister has told close colleagues that he is waiting until the trial is over, but he is planning to warn the press that they must show restraint or face action. The PCC's code of practice contains a clause forbidding "payment or offers or of payment for stories, pictures or information ... to witnesses or potential witnesses in criminal proceedings".

Several witnesses in the West trial have admitted having contracts with the media. Anne Marie Davis, Mrs West's stepdaughter, received pounds 3,000 from the Daily Star, Caroline Owens, who was attacked by the Wests in 1972, will eventually get pounds 20,000 from the Sun and Kathryn Halliday, who said she had a lesbian relationship with Mrs West, has been paid pounds 8,000 by the Sunday Mirror.

Stephen and Mae West, who have not given evidence, have been bought up by the News of the World.

The defence in the Rosemary West trial challenged the evidence of some witnesses in court, warning the jury that the more sensational accounts they gave, the more the media would pay for their stories. Richard Ferguson QC, acting for the defence, told the court in Winchester that there may have been "an element of amateur dramatics" in the way some witnesses gave evidence.

He continued: "You may think that, consciously or unconsciously, they know that what they will be paid is contingent upon there being convictions in this case."

The Government backed off from legislation to curb the excesses of the press. But the PCC chairman fears the issue could be raised again if self-regulation is seen to have failed. He has also privately expressed alarm that newspapers had come perilously close to being in contempt of court in other recent cases. Eight newspapers have been referred to the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, by Judge Roger Sanders after a case concerning Geoffrey Knights was abandoned because of pre-trial reports. It could lead to a redefinition of the law on contempt.

The Attorney General said he would review all the articles. "We shall examine those carefully and then we shall write to the editors concerned asking them any reason why the matter should not be referred to the Divisional Court as a potential criminal contempt. We shall then decide whether to refer [any] to the court. It is my job as Attorney General to enforce the law firmly but fairly."

Lord Wakeham's concern reflects mounting worry in legal and political circles about the press's conduct in criminal trials. Mark Stephens, solicitor for the Taylor sisters, whose convictions for murder were quashed last year after prejudicial reporting of their trial, said paying witnesses could jeopardise criminal cases.

"It was an issue in the OJ [Simpson] case. People who think they may be able to sell their story ... may enhance or add to their accounts. So the risk is outright lies or embellishment," Mr Stephens said.

"The problem you have as a lawyer when faced with this is that you don't know a witness has been bought, so you're not able to cross-examine them in a trial."

Mr Stephens said that a law could be framed to ensure that witnesses could not be approached before the end of a trial.

Lord Wakeham has told friends that he finds some of the reporting on the West trial too much to bear and he is thought to be considering an inquiry into the possibility of tightening the code of conduct.

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