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Trials of nine journalists dropped

Published 17/04/2015

The reporters were found not guilty at the Old Bailey of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office
The reporters were found not guilty at the Old Bailey of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office

Most of the journalists awaiting trial for paying public officials for scoops had their cases dropped today, signalling a major victory for critics of the controversial Operation Elveden police investigation.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced it was scrapping the cases of nine out of 12 journalists awaiting trial following an urgent review prompted when the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of the first reporter to be found guilty.

It comes hours after angry calls were made outside the Old Bailey to stop "persecuting innocent journalists" after four more reporters were cleared of paying public officials for stories in the latest of the controversial Operation Elveden trials.

The CPS, which authorised 27 reporters to be prosecuted, launched a root-and-branch review of the outstanding cases over Easter after the Lord Chief Justice ruled out a retrial of ex-News of the World (NotW) crime reporter Lucy Panton, who can now be named for the first time.

Lord Thomas found the jury in the trial of the 40-year-old mother of two from Surrey should have been directed that the misconduct had to be really serious to convict.

He also gave NotW reporter Ryan Sabey - the only other reporter to be found guilty of an Elveden offence - leave to appeal against his conviction.

The nine journalists whose forthcoming cases have been dropped are: ex-Mirror reporter Greig Box-Turnbull and the NotW's Stephen Moyes, Sun reporter Vince Soodin, ex-NotW royal editor Clive Goodman, ex-NotW editor Andy Coulson, ex-Sun deputy news editor Ben O'Driscoll and former Sun managing editor Graham Dudman, Panton and Sabey.

But the CPS will still go ahead with cases involving six public officials, the wife of a public official and three Sun journalists - head of news Chris Pharo, reporter James Pyatt and crime reporter Anthony France.

The fate of five more journalists who are on bail waiting to hear if they will be charged has yet to be decided.

Today's announcement from the CPS is likely to be welcomed by critics of the £20 million police investigation, code-named Operation Elveden - one of the biggest ever Scotland Yard inquiries.

They have become increasingly outspoken as one Old Bailey jury after another found reporters not guilty of wrongdoing.

When four senior Sun journalists, including chief reporter John Kay and royal editor Duncan Larcombe, were cleared last month, there were calls for the "witch hunt" against the members of the newspaper industry to end.

Mr Larcombe, 39, said at the time: "There is no celebration while this witch-hunt continues against my colleagues who are still facing the nightmare that I hopefully one day will wake up from."

Today he said the news was "bitter sweet" saying "if it's wrong for a Sun journalist to expose cover-ups within the MoD about faulty body armour, unacceptable vehicles, if that's wrong and if it's justified by writing stories like that, that the CPS and police come after journalists, then to quote a front page 'Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights' ".

Many of the innocent reporters spoke of the intense professional, emotional and financial strain of waiting for up to three years on bail before trial.

Ms Panton, who was on maternity leave at the time the NotW shut in 2011, had the added burden of funding legal expenses without assistance from her former employer.

Today, Sun journalists Brandon Malinsky, Neil Millard and Tom Wells were cleared of conspiracy to commit misconduct with a range of public officials, along with ex-Mirror reporter Graham Brough.

The jury could not decide on one count against Wells and ex-Serco immigration detention centre official Mark Blake and the Crown was given seven days to decide whether to seek a retrial.

Afterwards, Mr Malinsky said: "I've had nearly two years of torture. I think the police and CPS have been a disgrace bringing my case and other cases to court. It's a disgraceful waste of public money."

He said the police should stop "persecuting innocent journalists" and concentrate on criminals.

Mr Brough said: "I hope these acquittals will remove the fear currently freezing investigative journalism, which is the lifeblood of any democracy. I am greatly relieved that professional reporters have not been criminalised today."

He added that he hoped the CPS review of Operation Elveden "takes heed of the jury's decisions today".

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".

The CPS also took into account jury verdicts, the length of time that has elapsed, and the extent of the alleged corrupt relationship in its review.

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.

The cases which underwent the CPS review include the following:

:: Greig Box-Turnbull was due to stand trial this month alongside Desra Reilly and Belmarsh prison officer Grant Pizzey who allegedly received nearly £20,000 in newspaper payments over seven years. The CPS considered there was "a fine balance between the harm caused by alleged payments to a prison officer and the lack of harm to the public interest in publishing these stories" so offered no evidence against him;

:: Stephen Moyes was due to go on trial alongside Belmarsh prison officer Robert Norman in May but similarly the CPS offered no evidence against him;

:: Ryan Sabey and prison officer Paul Brunt were originally convicted but given leave to appeal. The CPS said it believed it was "not in the public interest" to seek a retrial against Sabey;

:: Vince Soodin was accused of paying a police officer but a jury could not decide on a verdict last year. The CPS decided not to go ahead with his retrial this month after taking into account that it was a one-off deal, the fact Soodin had not approached the officer in the first place, and the amount of time that had elapsed since the alleged offence;

:: Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman faced a retrial in June over paying police officers for two royal directories. However, the CPS also took into account "a number of circumstances, including the time lapse" when deciding not to go ahead;

:: While James Pyatt and Chris Pharo will face retrial in September in relation to dealings with police officers, their co-defendants O'Driscoll and Dudman will face no further action;

:: Sun crime reporter Anthony France who allegedly had dealings with a police officer over a lengthy period will still go on trial in May after the CPS concluded there "remains sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest";

:: The trial of Broadmoor prison officer Kenneth Hall and his wife Karen who allegedly pocketed £25,000 will still start in May.

All the defendants have denied any wrongdoing.

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