Editors face prison for payments to witnesses

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The Independent Online

Newspaper editors and reporters face two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine under government plans to clamp down on chequebook journalism in criminal trials.

Cases similar to that of the supply teacher Amy Gehring, in which schoolboys were believed to have told their story to a tabloid newspaper for large sums, meant the justice system was being undermined, a minister said yesterday .

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department, said witness contracts in the trials of Gary Glitter and Rosemary West were further examples of the "objectionable payments" that had prompted action. The Government proposes that to pay or agree to pay witnesses should be a criminal offence.

Lady Scotland also said the consultation on witness payments would cover concerns raised by the judge in the Damilola Taylor murder trial about rewards acting as inducements when they were offered by newspapers in return for criminal convictions.

"Payments made to witnesses for their stories by the media are objectionable, and even more so where they are conditional on the conviction of the accused," the minister said. "Payments create a real risk of encouraging witnesses to exaggerate their evidence in court to make it more newsworthy, or to withhold relevant evidence in court to give newspapers exclusive coverage later."

The Government has also decided to make newspapers foot the legal bill when they are found to be responsible for the collapse of a criminal trial. In a proposed change to the Contempt of Court Act, the Sunday Mirror could be liable for all or part of the estimated £8m cost of the first Leeds United footballers trial, which had to be abandoned when the paper published a prejudicial article.

Mirror Group Newspapers, publisher of the Sunday Mirror, will shortly appear in the High Court in London to face prosecution by the Attorney General under the present law of contempt of court. The newspaper is expected to be fined.

Yesterday the Society of Editors questioned the need for a ban on witness payments and said the new law could be counter-productive. "On the rare occasions that this becomes an issue governments threaten to bring out their sledgehammers," Bob Satchwell, the executive director, said. "There is no evidence that trials have been prejudiced and the media is well aware of its responsibilities to the administration of justice."

Professor Robert Pinker, acting chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, said the rules in the editors' code of practice on payments to witnesses in criminal trials were "tough and clear". In 1995, after the West case, the code had been strengthened. There had been only one breach since, he said. "We think it is wrong to say self-regulation has in any way failed in this area."

Mr Satchwell added: "It is patronising to juries to suggest they cannot take proper account of any payments so long as they are made aware of them. However much judges and government ministers might find it distasteful, sometimes payments to witnesses have achieved results where otherwise there might have been no justice."

Lady Scotland said the proposals would not outlaw payments by a newspaper to a witness reached after the end of the case. Nor would they stop newspapers offering payments during live cases so long as witnesses did not agree them until after the case.