A legal row erupted in court today over a secret decision by "elders and betters" to swap judges in the retrial of senior Sun executives accused over payments to corrupt public officials.
Judge Richard Marks QC, who presided over the original trial of Sun news editor Chris Pharo and others at Kingston Crown Court, was expected to continue when the case comes to retrial at the Old Bailey on September 21.
But at an Old Bailey hearing before Judge Charles Wide today, it emerged that he had been called in to take over the case.
Informing barristers of the decision in an email on Wednesday, Judge Marks said: "It has been decided (not by me but by my elders and betters) that I am not going to be doing the retrial."
A senior defence lawyer demanded an explanation for the move and suggested that it would appear as if "something has been going on behind the scenes".
Nigel Rumfitt, QC, for Pharo, said: "It cannot be a state secret. I don't think Mr Putin is going to lose any sleep over why my lord has been selected. It is this sort of obsessive childish secrecy we get in this country which causes intense disquiet.
"It was on February 4 we received an email, part of which I have quoted, that caused very considerable consternation, which very much gives the impression that his honour Judge Marks has been taken off this against his will.
"This deserves an explanation. The way this comes about gives rise to the impression that something has been going on behind the scenes which should have been dealt with transparently."
The court heard that the prosecution in the case had no objection to the change of trial judge and there was no suggestion of unfairness.
Judge Wide referred the defence lawyer to senior High Court judge Mr Justice Sweeney, who presides over the area circuit.
Head of news Pharo, ex-deputy news editor Ben O'Driscoll, reporter Jamie Pyatt and former managing editor Graham Dudman face a retrial after a jury failed to reach verdicts on some charges of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office last month.
Two fellow defendants – the Sun's picture editor John Edwards and former reporter John Troup – were cleared of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office.
Pharo, 45, of Sandhurst in Berkshire; Dudman, 51, of Brentwood in Essex; and O'Driscoll, 38, of Windsor in Berkshire, were all originally charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. Pyatt, 51, also of Windsor, was charged with two counts each of the same offence.
O'Driscoll and Dudman were found not guilty of one of the charges last week, along with Mr Edwards and Mr Troup.
The judge made no objection to the hearing being reported by the press.