UK

Sun journalist's lawyer queries use of 'vague' law

Geoff Webster Image copyright PA
Image caption Geoff Webster was cleared of wrongdoing on Friday

The defence lawyer for one of the four Sun journalists cleared of paying military sources has questioned the use of the law that led to his trial.

Geoff Webster was found not guilty of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office on Friday.

His counsel Geoffrey Cox QC said the law was "vague" and criticised the approach of police and prosecutors.

He also said the jailing of other reporters and editors raised questions of proportionality.

The four journalists, prosecuted as a result of Operation Elveden, were all cleared of wrongdoing after a trial at the Old Bailey.

'Fear of transgression'

Ex-chief reporter John Kay, 71, and former royal editor Duncan Larcombe, 39, said their contact with two military sources was in the public interest.

Former deputy editors Fergus Shanahan, 60, and Mr Webster, 55, were cleared of charges they signed off payments.

The court heard £100,000 was paid to Ministry of Defence official Bettina Jordan-Barber, who was jailed in January. Mr Webster had been accused of paying her for stories between 2004 and 2012, which he denied.

Mr Cox told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The jailing of journalists and editors for newsgathering, provided it was information not of a restricted or classified kind, does raise questions as to proportionality.

"And if you have a vague law which applies to the newsgathering and editorial decisions, you have the risk that people will not report things that are in the public interest for fear of transgressing a vague law."


Analysis

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

About 100 journalists have now been detained or interviewed under caution as part of the various police investigations into press practices.

Proving guilt has been rather more difficult: nine have been convicted of phone hacking; three for paying public officials.

Where reporters can demonstrate a clear public interest in stories for which payments are made - in John Kay's case army bullying, deaths in action and equipment failings - they have been acquitted.

Three years ago, the then director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, anticipated the problems such cases would cause and issued guidelines about bringing charges.

The guidelines say if the public interest served by the conduct outweighs the overall criminality then it's less likely a prosecution will be required.

It is a difficult balance to strike - but given the latest verdicts, prosecutors may well review whether they've got it right.


Mr Cox said while he did not condone the breaching of confidentiality by those handling sensitive information, there has to be "proportionality in the use of the criminal law".

As the information at the heart of the trial was such that the Ministry of Defence or the Army "would put it into the public domain" themselves, and it was not classified, applying criminal law is "questionable in these circumstances", he argued.

The lawyer said the trial had a "massive impact" on Mr Webster's life, as well as that of his family.

"This has been three years of sheer hell and it's going to take a long time to recover from it," he added.

An editorial in the Sun on Saturday said that "the public have no appetite to convict and jail journalists for printing the truth".

The Crown Prosecution Service said it was unable to comment while related cases were on going.

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