Judges hit out at tabloid stings

Two judges strongly criticised the methods of the News of the World yesterday, after the collapse of a drugs trial involving the pop singer Brian Harvey and the jailing of a fantasist who claimed she was raped by Neil and Christine Hamilton.

Charges against Mr Harvey were dropped after the prosecution said the main witness, who had been paid £15,000 by the News of the World, had disappeared. Judge Gareth Hawkesworth told Mr Harvey: "You leave this court without a stain on your character. May this be a salutary lesson to the proprietors of that newspaper."

In the other case, Nadine Milroy-Sloan, who was jailed for fabricating allegations against the Hamiltons, was paid £50,000 by the News of the World. Judge Simon Smith said: "It is becoming all too easy for people to sell allegations about well-known people to the press and the courts have got to deal with it."

The criticisms come only two weeks after the newspaper was reported, also by Judge Simon Smith, to the Attorney General after the collapse of the prosecution of five men for allegedly plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham. The judge heard that the News of the World paid £10,000 to a convicted criminal, Florim Gashi, for his story amid defence claims that he actually encouraged the accused men to dream up the plot.

On Monday, the Commons Select Committee on Culture and Media, which has been conducting an inquiry into press intrusion, is expected to recommend an end to self-regulation of the newspaper industry and greater powers for Ofcom, the new media regulator, to supervise the work of the Press Complaints Commission.

At Chelmsford Crown Court yesterday, Mr Harvey's lawyer, Stephen Ferguson, said the former East 17 singer had been arrested solely because of an article in the News of the World and said the Crown Prosecution Service should conduct a "root and branch investigation" into how the case had come to court. Mr Harvey had charges of possessing and supplying cocaine dropped after the prosecution offered no evidence. The court was told that the main witness, Kemal Zorba, was refusing to attend to give evidence and had gone abroad with the money.

Milroy-Sloan's Old Bailey trial last month was told that she was paid £50,000 by the News of the World for her story after she claimed to police she had been sexually assaulted by the former Tory minister and his wife, Christine. It became clear later that she was a fantasist and had never met the couple. She was convicted of two counts of attempting to pervert the court of justice.

Sentencing her at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court yesterday, the judge told Milroy-Sloan: "It was a cynical attempt to get money and fame by dragging the Hamiltons into this. [Their] names were very much in the public eye at the time when, as the jury found you knew perfectly well, they were not there."

Milroy-Sloan, 29, from Grimsby, has convictions for theft and threatening behaviour and was known to make unsupported claims to the police. She went to the publicist Max Clifford, who told her that a story about sex and the Hamiltons might be worth up to £100,000, after becoming convinced that a man she met in an internet chatroom was the Hamiltons' chauffeur and was involved in a prostitution ring. After visiting the man in London, she told police she had been assaulted. The case collapsed after the Hamiltons produced a cast-iron alibi.

The Hamiltons said that they were "relieved" at her imprisonment after the "humiliation" of their ordeal. Mr Hamilton said that there should be the same anonymity for alleged rape defendants as exists for alleged victims.

The News of the World said in a statement that the collapse of the Harvey case was "another disturbing decision by the CPS. The News of the World is bewildered to have been blamed for the collapse of this trial when it is clear neither the CPS or the police were able to keep track of their witness.''

It said the information gathered by the paper had been passed to the police who had made the decision to proceed with the CPS. "Our informant was paid prior to any arrests fully within the PCC code." The paper said it had no comment on the Milroy-Sloan case.