Witness law is 'Dangerous Dogs Act on legs': editors - Press Gazette

Witness law is 'Dangerous Dogs Act on legs': editors

The society says PCC rules are better

Editors have condemned plans to bring in a new law to ban media payments to witnesses in court cases as unworkable and say it would only drive the practice underground.

The Society of Editors claims the proposed legis-lation – which could see journalists jailed for up to two years and face unlimited fines – is deeply flawed and has dubbed it "the Dangerous Dogs Act on legs".

The society says proposals outlined in a Lord Chancellor’s Department consultation paper would not stop payments. The proposals follow high-profile court cases, such as the trials of the Leeds’ footballers and Canadian school teacher Amy Gehring, in which there was controversy over press payments to witnesses.

In a submission to the Government, the society says Press Complaints Commission rules are a better guarantee of the integrity of the legal system because the Editors’ Code of Practice requires all deals to be declared to both prosecution and defence.

The society backs the view of the PCC that only one trial in the past 50 years – that of Gary Glitter – failed because of a paper paying a witness.

But, the society says the payment only affected one of the charges and would not have been prevented by the proposed law. The payment to the witness Alison Brown was made well before proceedings were active or imminent.

The society accuses the Government of being "confused and schizophrenic" in its attitude towards press self-regulation by "dangerously undermining a voluntary system".

It also warns that regional newspapers and radio stations raising appeal funds or providing gifts for crime victims could be criminalised if the recipients were also witnesses.

"The proposed law would stop a local paper buying a child a new bicycle if they had one stolen or giving an elderly victim of crime a box of groceries." The society concludes: "The Government proposals on witness payments are almost entirely unworkable and would fail to achieve their aim of ‘resolving completely’ the problem, which anyway exists more in theory than practice. They would not prevent all witness payments, nor stop lawyers casting doubt on witnesses who had given interviews unpaid or who admitted they would be willing to sell their story post-trial as the law permitted. At most, the law would simply mean agreements were deferred to a bidding war at the end of a hearing – while failing to prevent witnesses from slanting evidence to attract a post-trial deal.

"This fig leaf would be secured only by the introduction of a strict liability law with no public interest defence and at the expense of a self-regulatory system whose voluntary transparency provides greater protection for justice than anything these draconian measures could deliver. The situation would be worse not better. It is the Dangerous Dogs Act on legs."

John Slattery