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Did ‘fact finder' Lord Justice Leveson overlook cash payments for news stories?

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Posted by Nicholas Jones

In one of the tetchiest exchanges during a select committee hearing before MPs, Lord Justice Leveson refused to get drawn into the way some tabloid newspapers continue to promise pay for information for news stories – a practice which represents one of the starkest ethical divides among British journalists.

Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, tried without success to get the judge to comment on the conduct of those national newspapers which “advertise openly to pay for stories".  Earlier in the exchange she had asked whether he thought there were circumstances where “payment for a story is justified."

But she met a point-blank refusal from Sir Brian Leveson who was answering questions from members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Media, Culture and Sport (10.10.2013) about the wider impasse between politicians and the newspaper industry over securing approval for a royal charter on press regulation.

Although he had been asked by the Prime Minister to “inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press", the judge's report made no recommendations on evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry about a deeply-embedded culture of cash payment for stories.

When taking evidence both the judge and his leading counsel Robert Jay QC had failed to challenge Rupert Murdoch on the reasons why he thought a “culture of illegal payments" had become so entrenched within the newspapers of News International.

At the start of the select committee hearing Lord Justice Leveson said one of the advantages of having a judge to conduct an inquiry of the kind asked for by the Prime Minister, was that a judge had experience as a “fact finder" of past events and a judge could also deal with legal complexities.

In a series of challenges to the judge on the scope and conduct of his inquiry, Tracey Crouch asked whether he thought the Metropolitan Police had been the correct police authority to investigate the conduct of News International journalists.

Sir Brian offered no comment except to say that there were some relations between senior journalists and police officers of which he had been critical but he would not go into any details because of outstanding trials relating to phone hacking and bribery of public officials.

But Ms Crouch persisted in challenging the judge: “Are there circumstances where payment for a story is justified?"  Sir Brian stood his ground: “To such extent as I deal with payments, I have dealt with it. I'm not going to comment as a matter of generality."

Ms Crouch:  “Many national newspapers advertise openly they pay for is not inconceivable a reporter would bring up stories to the news desk which offer information for a price?"  

She said the case of the Daily Telegraph paying for information on MPs' expenses was “a classic example". “This is actively encouraged. Is it unfair that individual employees are being tried for what are corporate failures?"

At this point Sir Brian visibly bristled:  “I am not commenting on any current investigations or procedures and with great respect asking such questions is unfair."

Nonetheless the judge had yet again failed to respond to the fact that his inquiry paid scant attention to an issue which is at the very heart of the “culture, practices and ethics" of the press.  

Within the news media there is possibly no starker split than the divide between those journalists who are – or certainly have been – happy to hand over cash for information, even perhaps purchasing data gained by illicit means, and on the other hand, those reporters who under no circumstances would agree to fund such transactions.  
Most reporters rarely speak openly about their sources of information, one of the great unmentionables of Fleet Street journalism; their relationship with their informants is usually a closed book even to colleagues and friends.

But as evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers demonstrated so clearly, there was a cash payment process at the newspapers of News International which allowed for the delivery of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money" to their sources of information.

While the judge and his legal counsel inevitably had to steer clear of pending prosecutions and trials when taking evidence, newspaper advertisements promising cash payments for news stories appeared daily throughout the Leveson Inquiry – and still appear today in newspapers such as the Sun and Daily Mirror, and as Ms Crouch rightly pointed out, this was an issue affecting the “culture, practices and ethics" of the press which deserved the judge's attention and a considered reply.

DATELINE: 11 October, 2013


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