'Error' in journalist prosecutions
Journalists should not be taken to court over paying officials for information if it is in the public interest, former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald has said.
The head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from 2003 to 2008 told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "not enough weight" was attached to the public interest defence in the recent attempts to convict journalists as part of Operation Elveden.
The CPS yesterday announced it was scrapping the cases of nine journalists awaiting trial for payments to public officials, while four more reporters were cleared of charges at the Old Bailey. The controversial police operation has been deemed a "witch hunt" by those taken to court.
Speaking to Today, Lord Macdonald said: " I think we have to give the highest regard to the importance of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas and I think it is simply obvious that there are circumstances in which it can be in the public interest for journalists to pay for information.
"Not for tittle tattle, or gossip or scandal. But we can all imagine cases where if the price of information coming into the public domain is the payment of a public official by a journalist then that's an appropriate thing for the journalist to do.
"It looks as though in the charging decisions that were made in the past in the Elveden cases, not enough weight was attached to the public interest in free expression and the freedom of the press, and that was an error I think the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders) has tried to correct by dumping these cases."
Under new CPS guidelines, public officials and journalists are treated differently when assessing the seriousness of alleged misconduct in a public office, an ancient offence dating back to the 13th century.
It makes clear there remains a "strong interest" in maintaining impartial and incorrupt public services and "public officials who flagrantly break the trust of the public for payments do cause real harm to the public interest".
So when there is sufficient evidence, prosecution would "almost always" be in the public interest.
"Sustained misconduct" by police officers is a "particularly grave matter" because they have significant powers and access to confidential databases with details of witnesses and victims.
Where journalists are involved with corrupt police officers, there would also be a "high public interest" in prosecuting, according to the guidelines.
But for journalists who deal with other types of officials such as prison guards, the harm to the public interest in corrupt payments may be "finely balanced" against the lack of harm caused by the resulting stories.
In these circumstances, the guidelines say prosecution of journalists "may not always be in the public interest".
Operation Elveden, which was launched by the Metropolitan Police in 2011 following public inquiries, led to charges against 28 public officials accused of receiving a total of £180,000 for the sale of stories. So far, 21 of them have been convicted.
In contrast, out of 27 journalists charged, 14 journalists were cleared, seven faced retrials, three were awaiting trial and the only two to be found guilty foundered in the Court of Appeal.
In addition, 14 journalists were investigated by Elveden officers but not prosecuted.
The total cost of the CPS bringing the cases topped £2.2 million last December.