Petty prosecutions are a threat to press freedom

One of these days the Crown Prosecution Service is going to learn that there is such a thing called the public interest.

One of these days it will also work out that when police officials push for the prosecution of a journalist, their motives are not always guided purely by the desire to see justice done.

Take the case of Dave McGee.

For the past nine months, the News of the World reporter has had a ludicrous court case looming over him.

Last summer he had undertaken a stunning investigation into security at the prison where notorious murderer Ian Huntley was being held while he awaited trial. It was a brave piece of work. Had McGee’s subterfuge been discovered, he risked the wrath of fellow warders and probably prisoners too.

It was about as clear cut a case of public interest reporting as you could find and led to the Home Office issuing a report tightening up security procedures at prisons across the country.

Yet what recognition did McGee get for this? A farcical prosecution under Section 70 of the Prison Rules 1999, which prevents anybody taking unauthorised pictures inside a prison.

The maximum fine he faced was £1,000, but far more serious for him was the prospect of a criminal record which would have severely undermined his ability to work as an undercover journalist.

On Tuesday the judge threw his case out and agreed his investigation was in the public interest.

So will that mark the day where common sense and an understanding of journalism begins to prevail in police circles? It’s hard to feel too confident. It didn’t on the day last March when the charges were dropped against the NoW’s Rob Kellaway, who had smuggled replica guns on to a plane at Gatwick.

Nor on the day last May when a judge ruled public interest on the Heathrow security investigation by the Evening Standard’s Wayne Veysey.

So instead we’ll draw their attention to another date, next Monday. That’s World Press Freedom Day.

It celebrates and campaigns for the fundamental issues of a free press around the world.

The freedom to tell the news without fear of being attacked or intimidated.

The freedom to criticise governments and their agents without fear of imprisonment.

And the freedom to report on matters of public interest without subsequently being harassed by petty prosecutions.

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