Tabloids fight over freed nurses' story

MPs call for Press Complaints Commission investigation into cheque- book journalism
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The Independent Online
FREED nurses Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Parry entered a gathering storm about cheque-book journalism this morning after it emerged that they are likely to be paid six-figure sums for their stories.

MPs last night called on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to investigate on the grounds that its Code of Practice outlaws payments to people convicted of a crime. The two nurses remain convicted murderers under Saudi Arabian law.

The newspapers involved, the Mirror, which has paid for Ms McLauchlan's story, and the Express, which has signed up Ms Parry, came top in a frenzied bidding war that involved newspapers and television stations from home and abroad.

The Mirror and its Scottishsister paper the Daily Record were keen to get Ms McLauchlan's story, because of her Dundee roots.

The BBC has produced a special edition of Panorama based on the prison diaries of one of the nurses that will be broadcast tonight. The corporation maintains it did not pay for the nurses' stories.

George Galloway MP wrote to the PCC last night asking them to intervene to stop the payments: "Criminals are not supposed to profit from their crimes," he said. "Wasn't this the argument used by the very same newspapers to justify their witch hunting of convicted killer Mary Bell?"

The MP said in his letter to the PCC: "It is greatly to the credit of Robin Cook and the British Foreign Office that King Fahd has commuted their sentences after just 18 months.

"But to see these women lionised in the press - I understand there is also a discussion about a film contract - is deeply distressing and must court criticism in Saudi Arabia of the King's leniency."

Mr Galloway was joined in his criticism by Labour backbencher Claire Ward, a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the media, who said that the nurses should just be grateful that they had been released from a Saudi jail.

Guy Black, director of the PCC, said it would investigate whether a pardon under Saudi law meant that the nurses' conviction was wiped clean, therefore allowing newspapers to pay them. Clause 16 of the PCC's code forbids newspapers from making payments to convicted criminals unless the newspaper can prove a public interest for doing so. Following the complaint from Mr Galloway, sources at the PCC let it be known that the public interest defence may be applied in this case.

Conservative MP Roger Gale, a former BBC journalist, said: "I am not in favour of cheque-book journalism - who is going to challenge their stories?

"If they are innocent, then their story should be told in book form, not ... lurid tabloid sensationalism."

A spokesman for the British Embassy in Riyadh said the pardon did not clear the women's reputations and was not a sign of innocence. "Technically, the King has simply commuted the sentence to the same period that they have already served," he said. Asked if it cleared their names, he replied: "No."

The women's lawyer in Saudi Arabia, Salah al-Hejailan, said: "Perhaps a better word than 'pardon' would be 'clemency'."

But Laurel Gilford, wife of Yvonne Gilford's brother, Frank, yesterday reacted angrily to the news. "They've got off lightly. It's just incredible," Mr Gilford said from his home in Jamestown, in south Australia. "They'll have to live with their consciences for the rest of their lives ... nothing we say can bring back Yvonne."

Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror, defended the decision to pay for Lucille McLauchlan's story. "We have bought the rights to Lucille McLauchlan's story because we believe that she has been the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.

"Her story is a sensational account of how a young woman was wrongfully framed for a crime she did not commit, beaten into a false confession ... and finally sentenced to a public flogging and years in jail."

Rosie Boycott, the editor of the Express, said: "I am certain that we have taken the right course to enable the public to know the truth ...

"When you read [Deborah Parry's] story in the Express, you will understand why we made a very considered editorial decision to do this. Naturally anything we do will be well within the PCC guidelines."