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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Paper defends 'kidnap' coverage
Victoria and David Beckham
The Beckhams have increased security at their home
The News of the World has defended its role in the collapse of a trial of five men alleged to have plotted to kidnap pop star Victoria Beckham.

The case at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court collapsed on Monday after the prosecution's key witness, Florim Gashi, was declared unreliable.

The judge was told the newspaper had paid 10,000 to the informant - a convicted criminal - behind last year's story, which claimed undercover reporters had foiled the alleged gang.

But the newspaper was bullish in a statement, which said: "The News of the World is surprised by today's announcement. We fully stand by the report.

"The story resulted from a thorough and legitimate investigation undertaken by one of the paper's most senior and experienced reporters - a journalist responsible for more than 100 successful convictions.

"Since November we have co-operated fully with the police leading this inquiry passing on all evidence. No information was concealed or held back."

When you realise his parlous financial state at the time, it seems less of a coincidence and unhappily more of a put-up job
Brian Altman

The men had been charged with conspiring to kidnap the wife of England football captain David Beckham on or before 2 November last year.

Adrian Pasareanu, 27, Alin Turcu, 18, Luzim Balliu, 30, and Joseph Rivas, 25, were cleared of conspiring to kidnap Mrs Beckham.

Two other men were also cleared but cannot be named.

Prosecutor Brian Altman said: "Mr and Mrs Beckham have had explained to them the stance the prosecution feels compelled to take in this case and I am confident that they understand the reasons for taking these steps."

'Ransom demand'

Judge Simon Smith referred the News of the World's role in the matter to the Attorney General.

Last November the front page of the paper proclaimed "Posh kidnap - we stop 5m ransom gang".

Over several pages the paper's investigations editor Mazher Mahmood described how its reporters had infiltrated a plot to ambush Mrs Beckham.

The plotters had intended to demand a ransom from her husband, the paper said.

Scales of justice
The practice of paying for celebrity stories is under scrutiny
The judge said on Monday he was minded to refer the whole matter to the Attorney General "to consider the temptations that money being offered in return for stories concerning celebrities give rise to".

The source of the story was described as Mr Gashi, a Kosovan parking attendant who was in financial difficulties.

He had told the paper the gang members originally planned to kidnap a Saudi prince but he was too heavily guarded and they chose Victoria Beckham instead, Mr Altman said.

It was suggested in court that Mr Gashi - who had a conviction for dishonesty - could have instigated the plot himself to make money from the newspaper.

Mr Altman said: "When you realise his parlous financial state at the time, it seems less of a coincidence and unhappily more of a put-up job."

The case is the latest to highlight the controversial issue of media payments to witnesses.

The Press Complaints Commission and broadcasting regulators recently tightened up their codes of practice, following a government threat to make such payments illegal.

Public interest

The rules say no payments may be made to a witness once proceedings have begun - and, before that, only if there is a public interest.

The News of the World would be expected to justify their actions.

The payment was made before the proceedings started and one of the accepted "public interest" justifications is "detecting or exposing crime".

Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the PCC, said the trial's collapse raised "a number of significant issues relating to the administration of justice".

He added: "The rules on witness payments have in fact been considerably toughened since the News of the World broke this story.

"It is crucial that all publications adhere to these, and the PCC will certainly act in any case where a newspaper or magazine is found, after investigation, to have breached them."

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