MEDIA: Time for the media to swap chequebooks for notebooks

Most people agree democracies are underpinned by a free, fearless press and an incorruptible judicial system. This leads straight to this week’s issue: should witnesses in criminal cases be paid for their stories by the media?

Most people agree democracies are underpinned by a free, fearless press

and an incorruptible judicial system. This leads straight to this week’s

issue: should witnesses in criminal cases be paid for their stories by

the media?



The Lord Chancellor, Lord McKay, in the aftermath of the grim display of

chequebook journalism in the Rosemary West trial, is proposing an

amendment to the Contempt of Court Act to make the practice illegal. The

Press Complaints Commission produced its response on Thursday - a

significantly tougher clause to be enshrined within its criticised non-

statutory code of practice. Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC, is also

asking Parliament’s Heritage Committee for time, yet again, to show that

self-regulation can work.



The PCC argues that there have only been four infamous recent cases

(West, Peter Sutcliffe, the Thorpe trial and the Moors Murders) when

criminal trial payments have created an outcry. With an election

clogging up business, time is on the media’s side. But it really won’t

do. The rewritten clause says that editors authorising payments ‘in the

public interest’ must demonstrate for the first time what has been

achieved through waving cash at previously mute or undiscovered

witnesses. A witness accepting payments will be advised that prosecution

and defence lawyers must be told. So payments would become more

difficult, but still legally possible.



It is clear the media is skating on thin ice. Freedom to report and

investigate needs to be balanced against the greater interest of

administering justice. Witnesses to a criminal action have a public duty

to give evidence honestly and freely. However miserable their

circumstances, they should not be tempted to exploit their experiences

for financial gain, during a trial. Even the suspicion that people might

spice up their story should be reason enough to outlaw the practice.



What can a newspaper or TV journalist uncover by making payments that

can possibly be so important to society, that it outweighs the primary

need for untainted justice? The Lord Chancellor is correct in his desire

to protect the judicial system and evident conclusion that it is a vain

hope to imagine that self-regulation in such a cut-throat business could

be watertight.



Context matters too. Certain newspapers thrive on behaving badly. The

Sun published that fake video of Hewitt and Princess Diana without

considering whether it served any public interest - even if true. The

Daily Mirror’s attack on the Germans at the height of football mania was

thuggish. Last week’s media scrum around two English schools was

shameful.



Commentary about current press standards is dominated by a clutch of ex-

editors, who dole out sympathetic treatment to current editors, but

misjudge the mood of the country. I long for newspapers to rediscover

their mission.



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