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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Head to head: Witness payments
Head to Head
Plans to curb chequebook journalism by banning newspapers from making payments to court case witnesses have had a mixed reception.

The newspaper industry's watchdog the Press Complaints Commission argues the proposals are a "futile gesture" but the legal profession sees a case for a ban.

PCC acting chairman Professor Robert Pinker

There have only been six cases involving payment to witnesses in the last 50 years and only three since the present code was established in 1991.

There was a breach in just one of those cases - relating to Gary Glitter.

The whole thing gets in the way of clear, precise justice

Barrister John Cooper

There was a clear breach and that breach had been noted in the judicial proceedings and we upheld the complaint against the newspaper.

If we could see that there was convincing evidence that this was posing serious problems in the administration of justice, the commission would support legal change.

But there is no convincing evidence.

Strict guidelines

Let me remind you of the very tough criteria that we laid down in the code of practice.

If an editor breaches any one of these requirements then a complaint is upheld.

The editors first of all have got to show that there is an overriding need to make an offer of payment.

It also has to be demonstrably and legitimately in the public interest to do so.

And furthermore any such arrangements must be made transparent to both the defence and the prosecution involved in the case.

Finally, and most importantly, there is no possibility under the code of any payments being made to witnesses on a conditional basis.

In order words, you will receive more money if a particular outcome results.

It's a very tough code of conduct.

Editors are in a minority on the commission and have to answer to it in this matter. So it's not just left to their discretion. We are an independent organisation.

Newspapers would not pay for stories unless they felt there was no other way in which that story would be made available or there was a clear and overriding public interest that the story should be made available.

The editor must always make a judgment whether in relation to upholding the code of practice, which is a voluntary one, or putting himself in danger of contempt of court.

Barrister John Cooper

It's the perception of justice that's important here.

It's the perception that witnesses give fair, unadulterated evidence as matter of investigation now.

Whilst I accept that the Press Complaints Commission have come up with one faulty finding, who knows, perhaps a more impartial investigation may have come up with more.

Who are the editors, with all due respect to them, to decide public need.

We need a thoroughly independent organisation - independent of the press to examine these requirements.

When witnesses present their evidence to court, juries and tribunals need to know that they give that unadulterated, clear evidence.

The result of a case does not excuse the payment that's made to a witness.

Open justice

Paid witnesses can be good liars, paid witnesses can be dishonest.

A good witness - a truthful witness - can be undermined before a jury if a jury think they're being paid.

The whole thing gets in the way of clear, precise justice.

If a person needs to be paid money to give evidence, one immediately has to question where their evidence is coming from.

What we have here is the public - not just the case itself - the public seeing that justice has been done.

It is uncomfortable to see that newspapers have to pay people in certain circumstances to give evidence.

But it's more than uncomfortable, it strikes at the very heart of clear, unaffected evidence.

Police rewards

The motivation of the police [in giving rewards] to encourage people to give evidence is to try and achieve justice in the court.

I would have thought the motivation of a newspaper to pay a witness is to get a good story fundamentally.

It's not that often you hear newspapers paying money to a very common victim of a street crime incident - it's always high profile cases.

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