Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakshott has said she did not fail in her “duty of care” to Vicky Pryce by publishing the story which ultimately led to her being jailed today.
Pryce and her former husband Chris Huhne were both jailed for eight months for conspiring to mislead the police about a speeding offence.
She told the BBC’s Sunday Politics yesterday: “We didn’t know the risks because we are not criminal lawyers and I felt absolutely that I had a moral obligation to her to make it clear that there was a risk to her in running the story. I fulfilled that obligation.”
Asked by presenter Andrew Neil whether she had colluded with Pryce to bring down her ex-husband, former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne, Oakshott said: “What I did as a journalist was to help her get the story she wanted out there. It was always my hope that she would go in the record with her story. I always tried to encourage her to speak openly about what happened.
Neil: “You said the chances of her being prosecuted were low?”
Oakshott: “That was very early on in the correspondence. Later on we said there was some risk to her…It’s not my job to provide expert criminal advice.
"We now know Vicky was getting advice from a judge, you can’t get better than that.”
Oakshott revealed in a Sunday Times feature yesterday that she first met Pryce by chance at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool in September 2010 (Chris Huhne had ended the marriage following the News of the World's revelation of his secret affair in June).
She agreed to be interviewed by Oakshott the following November – and afterwards said she wanted to talk more, off the record.
In early 2011 (whilst on maternity leave) Oakshott began “putting in the odd telephone call to contacts, including Vicky”.
They arranged to meet for lunch.
At this point Oakshott revealed that Pryce told her: “He can’t be leader. He shouldn’t even be in the cabinet. People should know what he is really like.”
Then she revealed that she had information which could take Chris Huhne down: “I took his points”.
The points incident referred to happened in 2003 and led to Pryce being convicted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice last week and Huhne admitting the offence earlier last month.
Despite being on maternity leave, Oakshott said she got “completely immersed in the story”.
She wrote: “While there was a clear public interest in the story – a cabinet minister had apparently broken the law – we were all troubled by the potential implications for Vicky.”
On 9 March she said she sent Pryce an email saying: “We have asked our lawyers and the bottom line is that, however the story is done, there is some risk to you.”
It was agreed that The Sunday Times would reveal the allegation from Pryce that Huhne had persuaded "someone close to him" to take his speeding points, but that she would not reveal that it was her.
Oakshott she warned Pryce that there would almost certainly be pressure on her from other media and even the police to reveal who took the points but that the story would definitely leave Huhne’s career “in tatters”.
On 6 May a draft agreement was drawn up by lawyers for the Sunday Times protecting Pryce’s anonymity.
Oakshott revealed that she read the final piece line by line to Pryce on the eve of publication, on 7 May, and that she was “very excited”.
But editor John Witherow was still apparently cautious saying: “What if Huhne sued?”
“If he’s not prepared to run it, I’ll give it to the Mail on Sunday,” Pryce apparently yelled down the phone to Oakshott.
After the Sunday Times ran the piece Pryce cut off all contact with Oakshott.
“After almost 10 weeks of daily emails and text messages, I didn’t hear from Vicy again. She didn’t answer test messages. She wouldn’t [pick up the phone. I was bewildered and strangely bereft.”
She said it emerged a week later that Pryce had “double crossed ” her and gone to the Mail on Sunday – even handing it a copy of the phone-calls with Chris Huhne which the Sunday Times had helped her secretly tape.
According to Oakshott, it was this second story in the Mail on Sunday which sealed Pryce’s fate: “The MoS published practically the entire transcript of the longest recording. It was now obvious who had taken the points. Very quickly, people figured it out.”
Oakshott said that later she agreed to give a statement to police but was “horrified” at the request from police for private correspondence between herself and Pryce – the extensive material which later emerged in court.
She wrote: “The Sunday Times put up a vigorous fight in court. But eventually we were forced by the judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.”
Asked what she would be thinking about today, as Huhne and Pryce were sent to prison, Oakshott told the BBC: "I have no sympathy for Chris Huhne, this story started with a lying cabinet minister and if he had told the truth then that is where the story would have ended. I will be thinking of her family and of her children."