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."

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
News
Robyn Lawley
people
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
News
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
News
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
Voices
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
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
Latest stories from i100
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

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

All Primary NQT's

£100 - £120 per day + per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Description Calling a...

Supply Teachers Needed in Thetford

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star