Alexandra Healey QC, who is defending Sun political correspondent Clodagh Hartley against charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, made the remarks when cross-examining the head of news at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) who was testifying about a press officer in his department allegedly leaking confidential information to The Sun.
The aim of controlling the release of information, Healey suggested, was to ensure stories made the media at the time of the department’s choice: “The advantage you are trying to get is in timing”, Healey suggested. The HMRC official, Paul Franklin responded “early reporting can lead to inaccuracy and distress and distort the reality of what we do.”
Healey also raised the issue of an off the record briefing arranged by the witness when the case of an individual company was discussed with a reporter from The Times, “was that right” she asked? Franklin replied that it was the journalist who raised the name of the company; “was it proper to discuss the legality of a company’s tax affairs with a journalist?” the barrister asked, noting that an HMRC official had told the reporter that a controversial tax avoidance scheme was called a “scam for scum-bags.”
The jury was also shown one of the stories at issue in the case in which the Sun revealed that an advertising campaign for a government website had cost over £1m. The defence barrister asked the witness if he agreed there was a “significant public interest” in the article which, she said, had also been reported in the Guardian, the Telegraph and on the BBC website. The head of the department’s PR responded that: “HMRC’s strategy was to avoid an unfair and distorted version of what we do being in the press.” Adding “we expect accuracy and balance so you have to manage and anticipate what the press will be interested in.”
Also on trial is Marta Bukarewicz, the partner of the civil servant Jonathan Hall, who the prosecution accuse of processing thousands of pounds of payments from the Sun through her bank account before passing them on to him.
Both of the defendants deny the charges. The trial continues.