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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Chequebook journalism in the dock

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Two more high-profile criminal trials - and two more rows about chequebook journalism.

Nadine Milroy-Sloan, who falsely accused Neil and Christine Hamilton of rape, is sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Nadine Milroy-Sloan
Nadine Milroy-Sloan sold her story for 50,000
She had concocted the allegations in order to make money by selling the story to the newspapers.

Passing sentence at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, Judge Simon Smith declared: "It's becoming too easy for people to sell fake allegations about well-known people to the press, and the courts have to deal with it firmly."

Ten days earlier the same judge had been on the bench in the same court when the trial of five men accused of plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham collapsed.

The issue on that occasion wasn't, as in the Milroy-Sloan case, the sale of vicious tittle-tattle about celebrities, but whether it is acceptable for the media to pay witnesses in criminal cases for their stories.

The fear is that a witness who has been offered money may be tempted to exaggerate their evidence to justify their fee - or hold something back for publication later.

Either way the witness becomes unreliable.

David and Victoria Beckham
Stories about the Beckhams boost newspaper sales
Last year the Lord Chancellor threatened to outlaw such payments after the highly-publicised case of Amy Gehring, the teacher accused of having under-age sex with some of her pupils.

That trial collapsed after it emerged some of the boys had sold their stories.

But there had been earlier controversial cases.

Rosemary West's lawyers complained about her conviction on the grounds that several witnesses in the case had been paid by the media - offers of 100,000 were made to some of West's family and relatives of her victims.

Gary Glitter was acquitted in 1999 of indecent assault after what the judge called a "reprehensible" payment of 10,000 by the News of the World to one witness, with a promise of 25,000 more on conviction.

Most controversial of all, the one-time Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted in 1979 of conspiracy to murder.

Police interviews

A key witness in that trial, Peter Bessell, had been offered 25,000 by the Sunday Telegraph for his story, and the same again if Thorpe was convicted.

The problems raised by chequebook journalism have become a familiar stick with which the legal profession can beat the media.

The Beckham case is no exception.

Judge Simon Smith thinks the Attorney-General should look again at the questions raised by offering money for stories about celebrities.

In court some of the defence lawyers were critical of the News of the World for not calling in the police until the very last minute, immediately before the arrest of the alleged plotters in a car park in London's Docklands on 2 November last year.

(Chief investigator) Mahmood and the paper were accused of showing complete contempt for the administration of justice and of masquerading as moral crusaders

The flaws in the prosecution case only emerged once the police themselves began interviewing witnesses: one defence lawyer said outside the court the police had been "bounced" into the arrests by the newspaper.

If they had been involved earlier, by implication, the case might never have been brought.

Another defence lawyer criticised the newspaper's chief investigator, Mazher Mahmood, saying his client was the victim of "a set-up... on the face of it designed to further Mr Mahmood's notorious career and improve the circulation of a tabloid newspaper."

Mr Mahmood and the paper were accused of showing complete contempt for the administration of justice and of masquerading as moral crusaders.

But as the News of the World pointed out in a statement defending its story, Mr Mahmood is one of the paper's most senior and experienced reporters and a journalist responsible for more than 100 successful convictions (as well as being the "fake sheikh" who trapped Sophie Wessex into a series of unwise remarks).

He had also dealt with his source, a 27-year old from Kosovo called Florim Gashi, once before.

Payments 'vital'

Last September the paper published a story originating from Gashi about a Wandsworth parking attendant allegedly peddling Class A drugs like heroin, the court heard.

But when police investigated, the woman accused by Gashi claimed he had set the whole thing up and given her a wrap of heroin.

On the face of it, the Crown Prosecution Service decided, Gashi had lied to the police.

He also had previous convictions for dishonesty - using and possessing false ID documents.

Amy Gehring
Amy Gehring's case collapsed in similar circumstances
Defenders of payments to people who may become witnesses in criminal trials argue they are a vital tool of investigative journalism: sometimes people just don't want to tell their stories unless they're paid.

In the event last year's threat of legislation to ban payments came to nothing.

News organisations agreed instead to amend their codes of conduct.

The newspaper code policed by the Press Complaints Commissioned was strengthened to outlaw entirely payments to witnesses once criminal proceedings have become "active" - in effect, once an arrest has been made.

Payments to people who may become witnesses at an earlier stage are permitted, but only if the information obtained is in the public interest and payment is the only way to get it.

Under no circumstances must witnesses be offered more money in the event of a conviction.

The News of the World's payment was made before the new rules came into effect, when it was still legitimate to pay witnesses after a case had become active (just as well, since Florim Gashi was paid his 10,000 at 9.36am on the Monday morning after the case became active with the arrests and the News of the World's publication of its story).

No doubt the paper could still justify paying a potential witness to a crime as serious as conspiring to stage a kidnapping on public interest grounds - always assuming, of course, the conspiracy really existed, and had not been dreamt up by a penniless Kosovan parking attendant out to make a quick 10 grand from a newspaper.




SEE ALSO:
Hamiltons' accuser jailed
13 Jun 03  |  UK
Paper defends 'kidnap' coverage
03 Jun 03  |  England
Beckham 'kidnap' case collapses
02 Jun 03  |  England
Just an ordinary couple?
02 Nov 02  |  Entertainment
Is fear the price of fame?
03 Nov 02  |  UK News
Head to head: Witness payments
02 May 02  |  UK News


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