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April 15, 2015

Lib Dems promise law to stop journalists who act in public interest being ‘dragged through the courts’

By Dominic Ponsford

A new law to protect journalists from unnecessary prosecutions is set to be included in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

The party is proposing to include public interest defences for journalists in the offences phone- and computer-hacking and bribery.

Any consultation would also look at whether a new public interest defence is needed in for the offence of misconduct in public office – which has seen many journalists face trial over payments to public officials.

Over the last four years at least 64 UK journalists have been arrested for alleged crimes committed in the course of their work – and around 100 have been questioned.

Under the Lib Dem plan, drawn up former MP and associate director of Hacked Off Evan Harris, a journalist would have a defence if they could show they acted in the public interest and had no other way of getting the information.

The journalist would have to provide a contemporaneous note which was filed with a lawyer in order to avail themselves of the offence.

Because there is no public interest defence for crimes like phone-hacking and bribery at present, cases are more likely to passed by police to the Crown Prosecution Service. Many cases involving payments by journalists have then gone to trial with the jury left to decide the public interest.

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The new law could ensure that in cases where journalists can prove they were acting in the public interest they are avoided the torment of years on police bail followed by a lengthy trial.

Harris told Press Gazette: “If there was a reasonable belief by the person concerned they were acting in the public interest they would have an absolute defence.

“They wouldn’t have to rely on the Crown Prosecution Service exercising its discretion. The police would have to show that they can defeat this defence.

“It would reduce the chill that comes form the prospect of there being police inquiries.”

Harris said the journalist would have to show it wasn’t more appropriate to pass the information on to police. For instance, he said, a journalist might be able to justify phone-hackling (listening to voicemail messages) if they could show they were investigating evidence of police corruption.

Press Gazette understands that the Liberal Democrats also want to look at adding a public interest defence to the Official Secrets Act. This would protect whistbleblowers who, for instance, want to reveal allegations of historic child sexual abuse,

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told The Sun: “Very often the only way the public gets to know about corruption and wrongdoing is through the dogged investigations of newspapers like The Sun.

“In rare cases, journalists break the law in order to get to the truth. Journalists who do so in the public interest shouldn’t be dragged through the courts.”

The Liberal Democrats have also promised to bring into UK law a US-style first amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and a free press.

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