High-profile prosecutions made 'impossible' by media, says DPP

The media's insatiable appetite for celebrity news and the growth of the internet are making prosecution of high-profile criminal cases impossible, the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has warned.

In an interview with The Independent, Sir David Calvert-Smith QC, said the argument had been won for legislation to end the practice of paying witnesses for their stories. Government backed down from its threat to legislate last year.

Sir David cited coverage of rape allegations made against Premiership footballers in a London hotel and the failed case against the television presenter John Leslie as highlighting the severe danger posed to the criminal justice system. In his last interview before he steps down today as DPP after five years in charge of prosecutions in England and Wales, he called for greater self-control by editors.

"I think there is a huge problem," he says. "As a prosecutor, I would be very happy to see the media exercise greater restraint, however interesting it may be to their readers. Even if they are not technically breaking the law they are either making it more difficult, or actually impossible, to bring offenders to justice.

"The clamour to reduce trial by jury will grow the more publicity gets out of hand, because it will be said you cannot trust a jury to try these cases so they must be tried by a judge alone who will not be overly impressed by pre-trial publicity."

"I think it's unfortunate the debate is centred around whether this or that newspaper report is or is not a contempt of court because the contempt of court law is fairly restrictive," Sir David says. "So when you have an alleged event such as one concerning the footballers or an alleged event concerning John Leslie, any publicity prior to the proceedings, may serve to identify those suspected."

Sir David added: "Let's suppose a newspaper takes a conscious decision, that it will cost us a £75,000 fine but it will gain us £1m in increased revenue. Well, I hope that newspapers, one of the key parts of British society, the fourth estate, would think we have got a part to play in upholding the values of British society."

The growing and unregulated influence of the internet is a "huge problem" because it helps disseminate prejudicial material, Sir David says.

Sir David also favours anonymity for those accused of serious sex offences. Ministers have resisted these proposals.

The new DPP is Ken Macdonald QC, a senior criminal barrister. Sir David says he will return to private practice and think about applying for a judicial post. If successful, he would be the first former DPP in a full-time job on the Bench.