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  1. Media Law
September 11, 2014

PCC rejects complaint against Guardian for ‘payment to criminal’ Chris Huhne – whose contract has now terminated

By William Turvill

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint against The Guardian for publishing a column by Chris Huhne – whose Guardian contract has now been terminated – commenting on the jailing of Constance Briscoe.

The PCC, which was this week replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, investigated after a member of the public claimed the paper had breached clause 16 (payments to criminals) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Huhne, a former Guardian journalist and cabinet minister, spent two months in prison last year for perverting the course of justice.

He began writing for The Guardian last September on a 12-month contract, which has not been renewed.

A Guardian spokesperson told Press Gazette: "Chris Huhne is no longer on contract with the Guardian, but we certainly hope to see him writing occasional freelance pieces for us."

Press Gazette has asked The Guardian whether the paper or Huhne chose to terminate the contract.

Briscoe was also convicted of perverting the course of justice and Huhne used the column to argue that he had been convicted after a flawed process.

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In May, Guardian readers’ editor Chris Elliott said he believed the column should not have been published.

He revealed that The Guardian had received 65 letters critical of the column. His office, meanwhile, received 20 complaints, and the online article got 1,500 comments, the “overwhelming majority” of which were negative.

Following the third-party complaint, the PCC chose to investigate. The Guardian argued that Huhne was not being paid for this specific article, but a series over a year.

Huhne, according to The Guardian, “waived the particular portion of his fee relating to that article” after learning of the PCC investigation. The paper reported: “The newspaper therefore argued that the relevant clause in the code was not engaged.

“There had not been an offer of a payment that induced or rewarded the writing of the article on that subject, and there was no payment.

”Furthermore, the article had not exploited a particular crime, nor had it glamorised or glorified crime. Instead, it served the public interest in shining light on Briscoe's deception of the police; its impact on other cases before the courts; and Huhne's initial not-guilty plea.

“Huhne was an experienced journalist and a regular columnist. The article had not been a one-off commission that allowed him to exploit his criminal conviction.”

Despite offering to waive the payment, the PCC said clause 16 – which there is a public interest defence for – still applied because of the contract as a whole.

According to The Guardian, the PCC concluded: “Huhne's point of view would inevitably be challenged by others, given his own conviction, and the commission noted that the text of the article was exculpatory in parts.

“Nonetheless, he was uniquely placed to comment on the issues. The commission concluded, on balance, that a distinction should be drawn between legitimate comment on issues of broader societal importance, albeit with a connection to an individual's crime, and material that was limited to the details of a crime.

“It concluded that the article did not constitute exploitation of Huhne's crime, and there was no breach of clause 16 of the code.”

In 2003 The Guardian was censured by the PCC after it paid prisoner John Williams for a diary article detailing his time in prison with Jeffrey Archer.

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