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Operation Elveden: The Wider Issues

Thu, 23 Jul 2015

Barrister - john butterfield

The decision of the Prosecution to offer no evidence against former News of the World journalist Lucy Panton brought to an end a four-year saga she described as a “Hellish ordeal” but wider issues remain.

It must surely be right to insist that there be a strong public interest before a journalist in a free society can be prosecuted for doing their job. It seems only fair to suggest that the Prosecution may initially have got that assessment wrong –not least because of their own subsequent actions in discontinuing a number of trials.

No one would seek to defend some of the wilder practices indulged in by particular members of the press. But in seeking to curb the excesses of certain journalists there is a danger that the freedom of the press is curtailed to a damaging degree. That may be more than a theoretical concern. We have one of the longest-serving Home Secretaries of modern times. Does that mean all matters under her remit -crime, immigration (and the like) are wonderfully dealt with and fully under control? Or is there a danger already that steps taken in the name of curbing certain journalists have in fact neutered the ability of the press to hold the powerful to account?

It is easy to take for granted the value of a free press. A raucous publication may nonetheless be fulfilling important public functions in some of its activities. It may be possible to underestimate that value when focussing unduly on the sometimes shrill mode of presentation.

Even if journalists are largely to be spared further prosecutions there are profound implications which still remain. Sources are the lifeblood of journalism and whistle-blowers are unlikely to approach the press when the threat of prosecution and imprisonment hangs over them. How are scandals like that at Stafford hospital to be brought properly to light when the flow of stories to the press is stymied in such a way?

The issues of the freedom of the press were not the only ones engaged by Miss Panton’s case. The length of time suspects spend on bail is under the spotlight. The DJ Paul Gambaccini was perceived to be a prime example when he spent almost a year on bail before the investigation against him concluded without charges. Lucy Panton spent fully 19 months on bail. She was initially convicted in her first trial before that conviction was overturned on appeal. The prosecution decided not to pursue a re-trial and later dropped the prosecution of a separate charge.

There were already a number of voices questioning the merits of pursuing so many journalist Defendants and the Appeal judgement in Miss Panton’s case certainly added significant weight to their observations. But little which was expressed in the appeal judgement was new –and much had been urged by the Defence during the various trials.

The perception remains that the prosecutions were an institutional over-reaction to previous failings regarding phone-hacking. But the consequences could play out for some time yet.

Written by John Butterfield QC

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