So you want a story, well what's it worth?

Andy Beckett on why cheque-book journalism continues to flourish

IN FEBRUARY last year, when it first became apparent that horrors had occurred at 25 Cromwell Street, the Gloucestershire Echo decided to interview Frederick West's daughter, Anne Marie Davis. Ms Davis had grown up in the tall, narrow terraced house police were excavating for bodies; an Echo reporter tracked her down.

But she refused to talk. She still suffered the memory of childhood abuse by her father and stepmother, Rosemary, but that was not the only reason for her reticence. Phil Walker, editor of the Daily Star, explains: "Our reporters had got to know Anne Marie very well ... There was a sort of meeting of minds. She decided not to talk to anyone else." The Star had also offered her pounds 70,000.

Ms Davis was subsequently called as a prosecution witness in her stepmother's trial, and became one of many people to give evidence against Rosemary West despite their media contracts. These included Janet Leach, Frederick's confessor in custody, offered pounds 100,000 by the Daily Mirror; Caroline Owens, assaulted by the Wests and promised pounds 20,000 by the Sun; and Elizabeth Agius, a Cromwell Street neighbour, paid pounds 750 by ITN and the BBC.

The suggestion that all this money might encourage witnesses to exaggerate formed an important part of Rosemary West's defence. After she was found guilty last week, leading lawyers suggested that if any proof emerged of distorted evidence, the life sentence could be overturned in the Court of Appeal. At the same time, the judiciary resounded with official threats of action. Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, said ministers were "seriously considering" making this kind of cheque-book journalism illegal. Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, said that the media's behaviour during the West trial raised "issues of principle" and called for a report. And the Press Complaints Commission, having expressed its concern for weeks, said it would examine the issue at its meeting next Wednesday.

But action against witness buying is problematic. Currently, the Contempt of Court Act of 1981 threatens to prosecute the press if it creates "a substantial risk of serious prejudice of a trial". Yet it is not hard to find lawyers who think this legislation still leaves witnesses open to contamination. "I've sat there and seen some bimbo bargaining with a newspaper," says Mark Stephens, a solicitor who specialises in press cases. "And they say, 'Your story hasn't got much sex in it. Can you do any better?' "

This sort of behaviour, and attempts to halt it, have a rather cyclical history. A witness at the Moors Murders trial in 1966 negotiated a retainer, a holiday, and syndication rights with the News of the World, a deal denounced as "deplorable" by the Press Council, the PCC's predecessor. In 1979 the Sunday Telegraph offered the main witness in the Jeremy Thorpe trial pounds 25,000 for his memoirs - and double if Thorpe was convicted - again to official condemnation. In 1981, even the Queen was moved to express her disapproval at all the witness buy-ups surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper trial, after she received a letter from the mother of one of Peter Sutcliffe's victims.

That controversy led to the PCC's current warning against making payments "to witnesses or potential witnesses in current criminal proceedings". Many would like to see this industry code - often ignored, as codes of self-regulation tend to be - become statutory law: "It just needs to be enforced," says Mark Stephens.

But the PCC's code has loopholes. By covering only "current criminal proceedings", it leaves witnesses open to payments after trials. This could still lead to distortions in their testimony: "You can't prevent people making themselves marketable by being lurid in court," says Clare Connelly, a lecturer in criminal law at Glasgow University who is researching the history of newspaper payments to witnesses.

The code also makes an exception "where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and the payment is necessary for this to be done". This is a defence much used by the tabloids: Tom Crone, legal manager for the Sun and the News of the World, invokes the "public interest" within seconds of being asked about payments to witnesses. As Phil Walker, editor of the Star puts it, at the moment "you're talking about the marketplace versus a code that's meant to be simple but is grey as grey can be".

But giving the code more definition, in addition to legal force, is easier said than done. How could offers of money to "lurid" witnesses after a trial be stopped, for example? And a more defined law would still need the official will to operate it; many lawyers criticise Sir Nicholas Lyell, who alone can initiate contempt prosecutions, for failing to confront misbehaving newspapers.

Lord Mackay admitted last week that restricting witness-buying was "not an easy area to operate in". And he continued in the exact terms - including a reluctance to mention cash - that a newspaper editor might use: "People want to read about it [a big trial], and that's what gives rise to the value of these contributions." The West trial judge said payments to witnesses were "a fact of life". The Official Solicitor commissioned a journalist to write Frederick West's biography. Even the BBC and ITN both justify making "small" payments for interviewees' "time" as a competitive necessity, although they deny signing people up to keep their information exclusive.

The public appetite for trial stories gives the justifications for witness buying a certain confidence. Editors insist that they do not sign them up until their evidence has been "crystallised" (they all use the same word) by the police, so any exaggerations can be detected. "We might have been breaching the letter of the PCC code but certainly not the spirit of it," says Mr Walker. Mr Crone goes further: "Very often in these cases the true story is told by the media, not by those in court ... If you say witnesses can never sell their stories, that may stop people coming forward to be witnesses."

In this commercialised environment, where even minor inquiries by the Gloucestershire Echo (which doesn't pay for news stories) are often met by the reply "What's it worth?", curbing payments to witnesses may require a shift in press culture rather than just new regulations. Mr Stephens is still hopeful: "The Roman circus was very popular at the time, but we don't think it's so great now."

And the buyer-takes-all system has its flaws. As in many markets, more choice is the producer's rhetoric and less choice for more money is the consumer's reality. To read about Anne Marie's agonies last week, you had to buy the Star - but then you missed Janet Leach in the Mirror, and Caroline Owens in the Sun. To get every character in the story you had to get every paper.

Scotland could offer an alternative way of doing things. It has no PCC code, but judges are far more ready to prosecute newspapers for contempt and newspapers are far more cautious. Clare Connelly has failed to find any instances of mass witness buy-ups in Scotland to compare with the West trial. "The press appears to be far more responsible ... Until four years ago cheque-book journalism didn't really exist in Scotland," she says. "Until the Sun started operating here."

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice