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June 17, 2015updated 19 Jun 2015 6:24pm

Lucy Panton: Betrayed by News Corp, persecuted by police, convicted at trial – cleared with the help of Fleet Street

By Dominic Ponsford

Thursday 15 December 2011 is a day former News of the World crime editor Lucy Panton says “will permanently be etched in my memory”.

It was the start of an ordeal she is only now beginning to emerge from, more than two months after her conviction for conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office was quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Speaking out for the first time about what it was like to be targeted – wrongly as it later turned out – by the police inquiry into tabloid payments, she recounted the day of her arrest.

“My husband was met in the drive by officers from Operation Elveden as he was leaving for work.

“I was taken from my bed and arrested. They then got my then five-year-old and her friend out of bed. Lily was having her first ever friend for a sleepover. You can imagine how awful it was for my husband to ring her parents to tell them our house had been raided by the police.

"Luckily they were very supportive and are still great friends. My then six-month-old son was taken out of his cot while nine police officers searched their rooms and all the other rooms in our house including our loft.

"I had been on numerous raids with police before, but that was as a reporter watching the arrests of drug dealers, paedophiles and a serial killer.

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"This time it was me. I was having my life turned upside-down in a search normally reserved for the most serious of criminals. It was an experience that left me feeling physically sick."

'You come out of this process damaged both mentally and financially even if you are cleared'

Panton (pictured above with her four-year-old son Oliver) thought her long punishment had ended on 17 April this year when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges against her.

But then, on 28 May, she opened a letter from the Legal Aid Agency demanding nearly £35,000 and warning of enforcement action and fines if she did not pay.

For Panton, it was the final blow in a devastating period which has included 19 months on police bail (during which she was repeatedly called in for questioning), an Old Bailey trial, the threat of a second trial and three months of wearing an electronic tag under a curfew order.

She said: "Opening the letter brought back the fear and anxiety which has haunted me through this whole horrendous ordeal. Reading this figure over and over again and trying to make sense of the demand of course brought me another sleepless night. Just when you think you are coming out the other side of the nightmare something else knocks us sideways.

"It is cruel and unfair and as a journalist this process has opened my eyes to massive failures I see in the legal aid system.

"But who cares? It seems to me once you have been arrested your life is not your own and charges mean you will only come out of this process damaged both financially and mentally, even if your name is cleared."

Panton has been unable to work as a journalist since her arrest in November 2011, which came five months after she was made redundant following the closure of the News of the World.

And unlike the various other arrested journalists, her former employer News UK (formerly News International) has refused to pay any of her defence costs.

Panton was given no warning she would have had to pay a further £35,000 in legal fees if she lost her case.

She said in a letter to the Legal Aid Agency: "As far as I was concerned I should be expecting back some £20,000 plus, which I have so far paid in legal aid contributions. Not a small sum when you have lost your career and been unable to find employment for four years.

"This money is not your money and should have been paid back. When I was being asked to pay the legal aid contributions, which seem to me to be figures plucked from the air, these were followed by regular letters and phone calls threatening me with massive fines if contributions were not paid on time. How things have changed now it is you that owes me money.

"I have heard nothing from you for two months and when I eventually do it is a letter, sent in error, demanding more money, threatening me with a deadline and fines if I don't pay. This I can only put down to incompetence."

Fighting fund appeal was 'turning point'

The Legal Aid Agency has now finally returning Panton's money and she is keen to repay the £11,000 raised to cover her defence costs in October 2014 after the Crime Reporters Association and other Fleet Street colleagues launched an appeal publicised by Press Gazette. The full target was reached within a few days.

Before colleagues stepped in she was the facing the prospect of going unrepresented because she could not find the money for a second legal aid payment.

After the Panton fighting fund reached its target one senior crime correspondent told Press Gazette: "It felt like a turning point in the whole sorry saga."

It not only paid for her defence but paved the way for a successful appeal which in turn led to the near collapse of Operation Elveden and charges being dropped against eight other journalists.

Panton is now keen to return the donations (*full details at the end of this story).

She said: "It’s not my money, it belongs to the readers of Press Gazette, the crime reporters, journalists and others who donated.

"The last thing I want to do is keep any money that doesn’t belong to me. If people do not want their money back I could possibly use it to help keep us going until I find work. But my intention is to return it to all those who have donated."*

Kissed children goodbye expecting to go to prison

Panton remains disappointed and angered that the company which caused her predicament failed to back her legal defence.  

A "ruthless" boss, described in court as a "tyrant", put Panton in touch with prison service source Scott Chapman in August 2010. He was an existing tipster for the News of the World who also, it later turned out, allegedly sold stories to The Sun, Mirror, Sunday People and Daily Star.

She wrote two stories about special treatment in prison for killer Jon Venables, who was serving time for looking at extreme child pornography, for which Chapman was allegedly paid by the paper.

Her conviction of November 2014 was thrown out after the Court of Appeal ruled on 31 March that Mr Justice Wide had misdirected the jury over the level of seriousness needed to make the charge stick.

She was due to face a second trial in April over a story she wrote about security breaches at Ashworth hospital. Murderer Ian Brady was found with sleeping pills in a sock, stored for an apparent suicide attempt.

Panton said she spoke to a security guard, and that someone else from the paper requested a payment of £1,000 for the source.

The Crown Prosecution Service dropped both charges against Panton after the Court of Appeal ruled her actions would have needed to have harmed the public interest.

Panton said: "I’m hugely disappointed in News International [now News UK] for leaving me and my family in this position.

"I had to pack my bags and kiss my children goodbye thinking I was going to prison. Those are things I will never forget and never get over."

Panton, who is married to a police officer, has two children are aged four and eight.

Questioning by police became 'highly offensive'

She believes that News International passed confidential work emails revealing her sources to Operation Elveden in July 2011. After her first arrested five months later she was interrogated by police a further four times before she was eventually charged after 19 months on police bail.

During those interrogations she was subject to a line of questioning which surprised and shocked her.

“When being grilled about which police officers I knew and who I had spoken to I was asked repeatedly: 'What was your relationship with them? Was is professional, was it personal, was it sexual?'

“As a married mum of two I found this highly offensive. It makes my blood boil still now.

“It was I think a purely provocative line of questioning to get a reaction out of me.

“I don't believe any of my male colleagues who were quizzed about their relationships with police were asked whether they were sleeping with them.

“I was astounded at their sexist, out-of-date attitude. Were they seriously suggesting a woman could not do her job without sleeping around? I had to pinch myself that I wasn't in an episode of the Sweeney."

Panton has made numerous pleas for help with her defence costs which have been ignored by News International/News UK because she was no longer an employee.

One Panton request prompted this two-line response from News Corp lawyers Linklaters, which she said was typical: "Having carefully considered the points raised in your letter, our client has instructed us to decline your client’s renewed request for payment of legal fees."

She said her lowest point came in October 2014, around the time former colleagues set up the fighting fund for her. News UK solicitors sent her a warning telling her not to contact any current members of staff.

"It was so disappointing when I had worked there for a decade and given up so much of my life. When my daughter Lily was born she was very ill and on a life support machine. I was made to work by her bedside after her second and third operations. The loyalty I had shown to the company meant nothing.

"I’ve been completely hung out to dry. I’m trying not to be bitter, because I don’t think it helps – but there is anger there at the way I’ve been treated."

By the time Panton's conviction was quashed she had already served 148 hours of her community service order, at a Cancer Research charity shop where she still volunteers, as well as the three months under tagged curfew.

Judge Wide added the tag to her sentence because he said he wanted to give her a daily reminder of how close she had come to being sent to prison.

During this time Panton could not go out in to her garden between 7pm and 6am without breaking the terms of her release, or go out to the garage to load washing into her tumble dryer.

She said she was often woken in the night with a phone call to check she was at home after the electronic tag, fastened around her ankle, malfunctioned.

She said: "What good does society gain from me being tagged? It seemed vindictive."

She has been told that she is not eligible for any compensation for the hardship caused by her wrongful conviction.

'Whistleblowers were turned over by News International'

Panton also remains deeply concerned that News International betrayed the trust of her sources.

She says: “Six police officers got questioned and arrested for giving me what investigators alleged was unauthorised information. These were matters of public interest and in some cases given out at briefings. They were never paid for stories and none of them were charged.

“It’s been horrible knowing that people who were just doing their jobs, as I thought I was doing my job, have suffered as a result of News International handing my sources over.

“Your sources are the one thing you are supposed to protect as a journalist and I was unable to do that.”

She said she regards the public officials she spoke to, who were prosecuted, as "whistleblowers who were turned over by News International." 

Panton says the matter she eventually stood trial over, the stories she wrote with prison officer Scott Chapman, hardly came up in her various police interviews.

“They were only interested in the police officers I spoke to. They couldn’t find anything criminal but they kept going until they could find something to justify the effort they had gone to.”

Panton has recently obtained a press card again and, with her youngest child due to start school in September, is keen to return to work.

She said: “I would like to thank everyone for their support. I really could not have got through this without my family, friends, legal team and all those who helped pay my legal fees. I couldn't have hoped for a better support team, you have all been awesome."

Press Gazette asked News UK why it refused to pay Panton's legal fees, while spending millions on the defence of other former News of the World staff such as Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. The company was also asked why it passed details of Panton's confidential sources to the police.

It said in a statement: "We are pleased that court proceedings are now over for Lucy but due to other ongoing legal issues it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time."

Read Press Gazette's other interviews with journalists arrested and ultimately cleared by Operation Elveden:

*Anyone who made a contribution to the Lucy Panton fighting fund can email in confidence (by Friday 17 July) and their details will be passed on to the Crime Reporters Association so that funds can be returned to the account they made their donation with.

Email to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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