The head of the Crown Prosecution Service faced criticism in Parliament this afternoon over the conviction rate of journalists and was challenged about allegations of a "witch hunt" against the industry.
Appearing before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee this afternoon, Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders denied that the CPS has been pursuing cases against journalists because of a “groundswell of attention”.
Committee member Michael Ellis MP challenged Saunders with figures obtained by Press Gazette, under the Freedom of Information Act, showing that the Metropolitan Police has spent £33.5m investigating journalists.
Ellis, who asked Saunders about claims that there is a “witch hunt” being conducted against journalists and celebrities, also quoted figures compiled by Press Gazette showing that at least 64 journalists have been arrested since January 2011, resulting in ten convictions, with four jailed.
Ellis said: “We have a situation where you have, according to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Press Gazette, I believe, some £33m was spent pursuing journalists to the end of September 14. And you haven’t got much for that, have you? I mean they haven’t got much by way of successful prosecutions?”
Saunders replied: “Let me first make it clear we are not conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against anyone, be it journalists or celebrities.
“In relation to what work we do, of course we are demand-led. So we don’t choose what comes into us. If there’s an investigation and the police feel there’s sufficient evidence to refer cases to us, we look at those, and that’s part of our statutory duty – we have to do that.
“And we will look at it to see whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a prosecution, and whether or not it is in the public interest.”
Ellis suggested that the CPS is “getting a disproportionate number of acquittals” in cases involving journalists. He said: “You’re getting far too many acquittals to justify prosecuting these people, I’m suggesting to you.”
He added: “Sixty-four journalists have apparently been arrested, ten convictions, four jail sentences, and all of the jail sentences have been for phone-hacking.
“The other matters don’t appear to be going anywhere. And that’s a lot of people on bail for long periods and whose reputations are sullied, names often disclosed, lives ruined, while nothing happens.
“Now is it because of the groundswell of attention that has come on this area that you’re pursuing these cases with insufficient evidence?”
Saunders said: “No, and I don’t know where you get those figures from. Of course we have had two public inquires which have raised [a whole] basket of issues around how the conduct of some journalists have happened.
“So perhaps it’s not surprising that there have then been thorough police investigations. I do know that in relation to… what’s termed ‘hacking’, which is actually a much wider term than that, charging decisions that we have made in relation to those cases that have been referred to us by the police have all been dealt with I think expeditiously – and certainly no more than three months at the longest period.”
Saunders then listed figures that the CPS has taken no further action against 47 people, including 25 journalists, and convicted 36 people, including ten journalists. She said that two people have accepted conditional cautions and that one journalist has accepted a “simple caution”. She said 15 people have been acquitted – including seven journalists.
Ellis asked: “Are you satisfied that juries are being persuaded by the evidence that your lawyers are being persuaded by?”
Saunders said: “I have given you the figures… When we look at cases we don’t make distinction as to who it is that we are looking at. What we look at is the evidence: Is there sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction, and is it then in the public interest to prosecute? And that test is applied across the board.”
Ellis also asked whether the CPS pays “attention to the clamour that there might be from outside? Does that influence your judgment?”
Saunders said: “No, absolutely not.”