If you only read Britain’s best-selling tabloid newspaper you would think that the last 6 months of Sun journalists appearing in the criminal courts have led to a total vindication for the paper and for its version of journalistic ethics.
It is true that since August 2014 three separate trials at London’s Old Bailey have found Sun reporters not guilty on various charges. Each acquittal was greeted with banner headlines in the paper proclaiming that the “ordinary people” on the jury had chosen to defend free speech against the police and the courts unjustly trying to silence the press. Yet a closer look at how each reporter defended themselves in court suggests there may have been other reasons for those jury’s making their decisions.
Let’s look at the case of The Sun’s Whitehall editor Clodagh Hartley. Hartley was on trial for paying a civil servant for information from HMRC, including advance details of the 2010 budget. While she argued that stories published as a result of these payments were “in the public interest” that was not the main thrust of the defence. Hartley’s position, simply put, was that she didn’t know paying a civil servant was a crime.
We have all heard the phrase: “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and it is usually true. There is however an exception, when the defendant is charged with “conspiracy.” The crime Hartley was charged with was that she had knowingly entered into an agreement with the civil servant to commit an illegal act. How, her defence said, could she be found guilty of that if she didn’t know that what the civil servant was doing was a crime?
The journalist pointed out that senior staff at the paper were well aware she was paying a civil servant and no-one made any move to stop her. The stories were, she said, vetted by lawyers who also raised no objection. How could she possibly have guessed she was breaking the law? In her case (most unusually) the public official involved (an HM Treasury press officer) was paid by his employer to talk to the press. If she also paid him, how could that be so obviously a criminal offence, she asked?
Or take the case of another former Sun journalist, Ben Ashford. He was charged in relation to taking possession of a mobile phone, stolen from a woman in Manchester. Ashford took the phone home and transcribed text messages from the device, some so personal that they were not read out in court. The reporter defended himself on the basis that he had been instructed by his news-desk to access the phone and send them the messages and had assumed that they would not have told him to do this if his actions were illegal. He was arguing that he – at least – was acting in good faith as the most junior staff member.
The same defence was made by another senior Sun journalist, Nick Parker, over payments he made to a prison officer. Parker told the court he had never been told that giving money to a public official was a problem by anyone, and was “shocked” to be charged with a crime. The Sun hailed their journalist’s acquittal for “aiding and abetting” misconduct in a public office. They were rather quieter about his three month suspended sentence for transcribing the contents of a mobile phone stolen from Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh.
Yet Parker had given an interesting defence on the mobile phone theft. He said he had been told by his news-desk to meet a man called Michael Ankers, who was later convicted of stealing the phone. Parker was adamant in the witness box that he was only a messenger: “It’s run by the lawyers, it’s run by the senior management, it’s nothing to do with me.” He told the court he had been told what to do by News International’s head of legal affairs, Tom Crone: “I was following the instruction of most senior lawyer at News International.” The journalist noted: “He made the decisions but is not in court today.”
Of course you have to be cautious about testimony given by people defending themselves in court, they often have good reasons to try and shift the blame for their actions to others. There are also at least six further trials of Sun journalists due next year whose outcomes remain unknown. However, the evidence and testimony we have seen so far could suggest that that the management of the newspaper was either indifferent to, or unconcerned by alleged illegal actions undertaken by its reporters.
One other thing to recall the next time you see the headlines in The Sun lauding the fact that one of their employees has been found not guilty. The only reason the reporters are in court is that the Management and Standards Committee (“MSC”) of News Corporation handed thousands of internal emails to the police.
And there is another point arising from all these prosecutions. The MSC’s actions revealed the identity of multiple sources who were public officials, none of whom have so far escaped conviction when prosecuted. This mass betrayal of sources stands in great contrast to the traditional refusal of journalists to reveal their sources – an ethical and professional principle which receives a high degree of protection in law.
As the CPS website explains, a company can be guilty of a criminal offence if the offender is the “directing mind and will of the company”. Criminal acts by senior employees may also by offences for which the company itself can be prosecuted. Given the evidence that emerged in court in the last six months the possibility of a corporate prosecution of News UK remains very real.
James Doleman has reported from the Old Bailey for over 15 months now, covering various hacking and misconduct trials. He tweets @jamesdoleman
Editor’s note: the trial of The Sun Six at Kingston resumes next week with the judge’s summing up. Also, 5 January 2015, another trial involving senior editorial staff at the Sun is due to begin at the Old Bailey, presided over by Mr Justice Saunders.