Monday, March 23, 2015

Crown Prosecution Service under fire over Sun journalists' three-year ordeal that ended in acquittals

For Duncan Larcombe, the Sun’s royal editor, the knock on the door came at 6am one April morning in 2012. No fewer than eight officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Elveden were standing outside with a warrant to arrest him and search his home, which they duly did.

His alleged "crime" was that the Sun had paid one of his sources for leaking stories to the tabloid, just as the Sun and other newspapers always have done.

Larcombe, 39, spent the next 1,060 days – he counted every one of them - living with the daily mental torture of uncertainty: wondering whether a criminal conviction and jail term awaited; whether he would ever be able to work again.

The Sun’s chief reporter, John Kay, executive editor Fergus Shanahan and deputy editor Geoff Webster were also arrested at around the same time and subsequently charged with corruption of public officials.

While their colleagues covered events like the London 2012 Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win and the birth of Prince George, the four Sun men stayed at home, on bail, suspended from their jobs, trying to maintain their mental and physical health.

Murderers, rapists and terrorists can expect to wait no more than a year to be tried once they have been arrested, but the four journalists were left in purgatory for three times as long.

During his evidence to the Old Bailey – where at point three separate courts were simultaneously being used to try journalists – Larcombe expressed his bewilderment by telling the jury: "I still have to be convinced why I’m sitting here."

Yesterday, at the end of a two-month trial which has cost the taxpayer £2 million, a jury decided it agreed with him – that journalists doing their job are not criminals - and duly acquitted all four men of all charges relating to corruption of public officials. A former Sandhurst instructor and his wife were also cleared.

It takes the total number of journalists tried and cleared over alleged corrupt payments to 10, with just three convictions, of which two are currently being contested at the Court of Appeal.

A further seven journalists are awaiting retrials after juries failed to reach verdicts in other trials, and nine more are awaiting trial or charging decisions.

The Metropolitan Police’s investigation of journalists for phone-hacking and corrupt payments is already the biggest and most costly inquiry in British criminal history. To date, it has cost £36.1 million, with 125 police officers and staff currently working on it – a figure which was once 195. The cost of the trials adds millions more to the bill.

Operation Elveden alone – the investigation into alleged corruption – has cost £12.4m.

Meanwhile conviction rates for crimes including violence, sex offences, robbery, theft, criminal damage and drugs offences are all going down.

Gavin Millar QC, one of the country’s most senior barristers, suggested it was time for the Crown Prosecution Service to admit it had got it wrong over Elveden.

He said: "These are working journalists who are doing their job, and they are being prosecuted for doing their job in circumstances where there is no personal gain to them.

"Prosecutions are supposed to be in the public interest, but the CPS is being found out by juries, who have their own idea of what is in the public interest, because they read newspapers.

"The CPS should have registered by now that juries are telling them they have failed to prove that this is not legitimate journalism.

"We are not talking about armed robbers or murderers or child sex abusers, so the CPS could perfectly rationally say that they had taken stock and that they had assessed this wrongly, but they just don’t seem willing to do that."

He described some of the prosecutions as "feeble" and said he was increasingly being contacted by journalists who wanted advice on the extent of police powers to snoop on their work.

"There is a feeling of vulnerability among journalists," he said, "and that is very worrying in a democracy."

Mr Larcombe summed up his defence by saying: "If a newspaper is not allowed to hold public bodies to account, be it the police, the NHS, the Royal family, the Ministry of Defence, unfortunately they are not likely to tell us when there are things going wrong, like with Rotherham child abuse and 1200 patients dying in mid Staffordshire.

"Funnily enough government-paid press officers will not tell you about those things in a press release. In that kind of country if you are saying you can't ever pay a public official, it's always a crime, I think that would extremely dangerous."

Mr Kay's barrister Trevor Burke, QC, compared the prosecutions to journalists in Russia and Egypt being "silenced" by the authorities, and urged jurors: "Please recognise how disturbing a development it is that journalists that only report the news accurately, honestly and fearlessly now face being prosecuted in our criminal courts."

The charges under which the journalists were being tried were also "extremely difficult" for the jury to understand, the trial judge Mr Justice Saunders conceded.

Notes sent to the judge by the jury during their deliberations suggested they were grappling with the concept of when a leak became a crime. Even for the public officials, the jury suggested, their conduct might amount to no more than a disciplinary matter.

Mr Larcombe’s barrister Richard Kovalevsky QC said during legal argument: "This offence is a very odd offence, because the jury is being asked to determine what is a criminal offence. The difficulty is that the line is for them to draw."

The toll of the criminal trial on the four defendants was clear as they left the Old Bailey, but all maintained their dignity.

Mr Larcombe said: "I'm not going to say much but 1,060 days ago eight policeman raided my house at six in the morning.

"I am obviously just relieved at the verdicts but there is no celebration whilst this witch hunt continues against my colleagues who are still facing the nightmare that I hopefully one day will wake up from."

Asked if he thought other charges against journalists should be dropped he replied: "Of course I think that but this is all I'm really allowed to say, thank you."

Mr Shanahan, 60, said the trial had been a "terrible ordeal" for the families of the defendants.

He said journalists have "thick skin and can look after ourselves" but their loved ones have been under "the most appalling strain for three years".

Original report here

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