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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Witness payment ban attacked
Gary Glitter
The issue arose after Gary Glitter's trial
Plans to ban newspapers from paying court case witnesses have been dubbed a "futile gesture" by the industry's watchdog.

Editors could face up to two years in prison or unlimited fines under the government's proposals designed to curb chequebook journalism excesses.

But the plans have been criticised as ill thought-out, unworkable and ineffective by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).


It is the perception of justice that is important here

Barrister John Cooper

The trial of schoolteacher Amy Gehring put the topic back in the spotlight after five newspapers offered to pay for stories.

PCC acting chairman Professor Robert Pinker told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that strict guidelines already govern when newspapers offer money for stories.

But barrister John Cooper said the payment of witnesses might tarnish public perceptions of the workings of justice.

Mr Pinker called the proposal "a futile gesture to deal with a largely illusory problem" in his response on behalf of the PCC to the government proposals.

He defended his stance on Today saying that there was no evidence such payments threatened the workings of justice.

Breaches rare

The PCC's code of practice about witness payments had only been breached once in 50 years, he added.

In the trial of Gary Glitter three years ago defence lawyers cast doubt on evidence because witnesses had been promised payments by the media.

Mr Pinker said there were tough guidelines determining when payments were made.

They had to be made in the public interest and should not depend on a particular verdict.

Editors had to abide by the PCC's voluntary code of practice and by contempt of court laws.

Amy Gehring
Witnesses in the Amy Gehring case were offered payments
But Mr Cooper welcomed plans announced two months ago by the Lord Chancellor's department for a law banning payments altogether.

He told Today: "It is the perception of justice that is important here".

And he believes that paying witnesses for their stories may distort this.

"The whole thing gets in the way of clear concise justice," he said.

In the case of teacher Miss Gehring five newspapers - the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, News of the World, Sunday Mirror and Sunday people - offered payment for stories.

The teacher was acquitted in February of indecently assaulting under-age pupils.

The PCC investigated complaints about witness payments but ruled the papers did not breach its voluntary code.

Ban

Mr Cooper argued there was a need for a more independent body other than the PCC to investigate complaints over payments.

Miss Gehring's lawyer Andrew Thompson told Today that he was concerned that witnesses could be approached by newspapers to be paid for their stories before cases concluded.

Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat's spokesman for culture media and sport, said he believed the proposals for a ban on payments were on the right lines.

He said that the PCC must be "completely impervious to public opinion" citing the Damilola Taylor case where concern was raised over the alleged payment of a witness.

The Lord Chancellor wants responses to his proposals by the end of May.

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PCC acting chairman Professor Robert Pinker
"It is a very tough code of conduct"
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