Gehring: acquitted by court
Five national newspapers have been cleared by the Press Complaints Commission over offers of payments to teenage witnesses when teacher Amy Gehring was on trial for alleged sexual exploits with her pupils.
In direct contravention of the Lord Chancellor’s thinking on payments to witnesses – he wants journalists sent to jail for making them – the commission has said none of the papers, the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People and News of the World, breached the Editors’ Code of Practice when making offers of payments. And it felt payment was in the public interest.
The code states that payment or offers of payment must not be made to witnesses "except where the material is in the public interest and there is an overriding need to make or promise to make a payment".
It also requires journalists to take every possible step to ensure that no financial dealings have influence on the evidence and that any offer of payment should be disclosed to the prosecution and the defence.
Gehring, a Canadian supply teacher, was accused of indecently assaulting underage pupils who attended a school where she taught. She was acquitted.
But there was some concern newspapers had approached witnesses before the end of the trial with offers of payment for their stories.
The newspapers concerned made plain the subject of money had been broached by the parents of the children and not by their reporters. Where offers of payment had been made, notably £3,000 each from The Mail on Sunday and Sunday People to one woman and her daughter and £5,000 each to a boy witness, they had not been made until after their evidence was given and were to be paid only on publication.
None of the interviews was published and no money was paid. The Daily Mail made no offers.
The papers stressed the public interest involved in the case. The Daily Mail said subsequent revelations had shown the media had a clear duty to examine how a teacher, whose suitability to supervise children had already been a matter of concern, could be appointed to another post elsewhere.
All the witnesses, questioned by the defence and prosecution about the media, made clear no approaches had been made until after they had finished giving evidence.
The PCC decided the journalists had taken every possible step to ensure that any financial dealings did not interfere with the evidence.
It considered the witnesses had first-hand accounts of Gehring’s behaviour – material that in some cases, according to the newspapers, was not called in evidence – which raised questions about why she was not restrained by the relevant authorities.
In the Gary Glitter indecency case, the commission ruled it was not acceptable to offer money on condition the defendant is convicted.
It was pleased to note that none of the newspapers had offered money on that basis in this case.
By Jean Morgan