Let us tax this chequebook journalism

By Sir Louis Blom-Cooper

10 May 2001 – The Press Complaints Commission’s speedy initiative to inquire into the Biggs affair will provide a severe test of the self-regulation of the press. It should also prompt a public debate about the scope of press freedom, the control of chequebook journalism and the pecuniary benefits to criminals.

The immediate focus of the Biggs affair is the prohibition in the PCC’s code of practice on payment by newspapers to persons engaged in crime, or to their associates (defined as including family, friends, neighbours and colleagues). Payments must not be made either directly or indirectly through agents.

Chequebook journalism has traditionally been abhorred. The old press council in its impressive report into the case of Peter Sutcliffe in 1981, when national newspapers were unsuccessfully vying with each other to offer six figure sums to the wife of the notorious mass killer, sought to outlaw payments to criminals. It virtually ruled out any public interest exception. The report said: “While the council recognises that conceivably, in an exceptional case, publication of stories or pictures from associates could be justified by some overriding consideration of public interest, and an editor might be able to demonstrate that the disclosure would have been impossible without the payment, there is no such justification.”

That declaration of principle reflected an abolitionist approach which has, however, not been sustained, either by the press council or its successor, the press complaints commission. Both bodies imported into their rules a qualification of public interest which included the exposure of crime, the detection of anti-social conduct, the protection of public health and safety and preventing the public from being mislead by information from the criminal informer.

Can the Sun conceivably claim a public interest defence in the Biggs affair, as distinct from a claim that the fugitive from justice is of interest to the public? It is doubtful whether a claim by a newspaper, supposedly acting for the benefit of the public, is sustainable when so many people think that Mr Biggs should have eked out his last days in Brazil, and not have foisted on the English penal system, with the Sun‘s help, the cost of enforcing an over-lengthy term of imprisonment on a terminally ill, long-term fugitive from British justice.

The press complaints commission will need to produce a carefully reasoned report if it is to meet the test of self-regulation in preference to some other regulatory system. If, exceptionally, it has been the practice of the PCC to investigate cases only on receipt of a complaint, why has it not conducted investigations of its own motion into racism in the press or into chequebook journalism generally? Perhaps the PCC can explain this reluctance to adopt a stance that discloses a hasty willingness to act exceptionally in the case of Mr Biggs.

Focussing on press freedom, with recent developments in human rights in mind, the PCC might well conclude that, irrespective of any defence, real or spurious, the press should not as a matter of principle be deflected from its prime function of informing its readers about issues of interest to them, however obnoxious the material or its surrounding circumstances. Where the crime is particularly vile, there will naturally be an enhanced repulsion to payment.

Victims of violent crime will understandably be revolted by the callous disregard for their feelings. Yet the memoirs of a multiple murderer may instinctively extend the boundaries of criminological knowledge from which valuable lessons of crime prevention may be learned. We should not put a dampener on such valuable sources.

In a perfect world editors would no doubt prefer not to do business with criminals, but competition among newspapers drives them to engage in a dubious practice. To the extent that information can be obtained only by payment of large sums of money, however, the remedy surely lies elsewhere than in censure of the press, unbacked by any meaningful sanction, which editors are only too willing to ignore as a slap on the wrist. Criminals who are paid money for recounting details of a crime for which they have yet to be convicted or even after conviction may have their payments seized, on the basis that they are part of the proceeds of crime.

The Biggs Affair – Another view
By Julian Petley

In July the Press Complaints Commission announced that the Sun‘s payments in May to Ronnie Biggs and a number of his associates did not breach Section 16 of its Code of Practice, which states that no payment shall be made to a convicted criminal or his associates ‘except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done’.

However, the PCC’s three-page adjudication, aptly described by Ian Hargreaves in the Independent as ‘more like a letter from a fan than a considered verdict’, barely addresses the all-important ‘material concerned’. In its investigation of the Sun‘s actions, the PCC actually asked entirely the wrong questions, namely: ‘what was the purpose of the payments to Michael Biggs and Bruce Reynolds? Were these “necessary” in order to secure the return of Biggs to justice? Would he have returned home otherwise?’ The Sun declared that it was ‘abundantly clear’ that Biggs would not have returned unless payment had been made, and, without apparently having investigated the matter any further, the PCC stated that: ‘it was impossible for the Commission to conclude that the result of the newspaper’s payment – and the consequent return of Biggs to Britain – was against the public interest. To do so would – in effect – be to condone the continued presence of a wanted criminal abroad’. The PCC thus neatly sidestepped the real issue raised by Section 16 – namely whether the material published was in the public interest and thus could be paid for without infringing the Code – and investigated the substantially different matter of whether or not Biggs actual return was in the public interest. Challenged on this crucial point on Radio 4’s Today programme Lord Wakeham all too revealingly snapped back that: ‘these fine legal points, or whatever they are, are something that I don’t have to get involved in’. Indeed. As Catherine Bennett acidly inquired in the following day’s Guardian: ‘what does he do instead? Lick stamps? Water the potplants? Invite young princes and their inferiors to festive champagne receptions?’

Lord Wakeham’s performance on Today also left one with the strong impression that the PCC hadn’t even bothered to enquire just how much the Sun had paid Biggs and his cronies. Indeed, given that News International’s Les Hinton chairs the PCC’s Code committee it’s a fair bet that the Sun ascertained what the PCC’s attitude to its stunt would be well before actually undertaking it, in which case the entire adjudication was, like most of the Commission’s activities, little more than window-dressing.

However, the most disturbing aspect of the PCC’s adjudication is the extraordinarily craven attitude to government which it betrays. Thus it argues that ‘the Commission had [sic] to note the role of the British authorities in the newspaper’s efforts to return Biggs to justice. It is unlikely that they would have assisted in the return of a fugitive if it had been contrary to the public interest’. Is this the voice of a fearless, independent press – the much-vaunted Fourth Estate? As an indignant editorial in the Independent felt obliged to point out: ‘the PCC appears ready to let the Sun escape punishment for its distasteful stunt purely because it was supported by senior politicians’. And just why were they supporting it? In the interests of justice? Hardly – the authorities had long ago ceased to make any serious efforts to get Biggs back. However, with an election looming and the ever-present need to keep the Sun on side, the government suddenly discovered that Biggs’ Brazilian sojourn was an outrage to justice and morality. So Robin Cook enables the Sun to fly Biggs home by providing Biggs with an instant passport – all in the ‘public interest’ of course – and the paper not only remains faithful to New Labour but fawns and simpers over Cook personally in his bid to remain as Foreign Secretary: as an editorial inimitably put it: ‘thank you Robin. We can see why Tony Blair has decided NOT to move you after the election. When the chips are down, Cookie delivers’. The whole cynical charade, which would probably be denounced as corrupt by British newspapers were it taking place in the hated ‘Europe’, is then given the blessing of the PCC. No wonder both the Murdoch press and the government are so keen to maintain the present system of ‘self-regulation’.

(Bulletin No 44)

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