UK

Sun journalists cleared in payments trial

  • 20 March 2015
  • From the section UK
Geoff Webster, Fergus Shanahan, John Kay and Duncan Larcombe (L-R)
Image caption Geoff Webster, Fergus Shanahan, John Kay and Duncan Larcombe (L-R) were all cleared at the Old Bailey

Four Sun journalists have been cleared of wrongdoing over paying public officials for stories.

Ex-chief reporter John Kay, 71, and ex-royal editor Duncan Larcombe, 39, said their contact with two military sources was in the public interest.

Former deputy editors Fergus Shanahan, 60, and Geoff Webster, 55, were cleared of charges they signed off payments.

The Old Bailey heard £100,000 was paid to Ministry of Defence official Bettina Jordan-Barber.

It can now be reported she was jailed in January.

Mr Kay, Mr Shanahan and Mr Webster had been accused of paying Jordan-Barber for stories between 2004 and 2012.

Media captionFormer Sun journalists Duncan Larcombe and Fergus Shanahan gave their reaction outside the court

Following the end of the trial, it can now be reported that the 42 year old has been sentenced to 12 months. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.

A fifth defendant in the trial, former colour sergeant John Hardy, 44, was found not guilty of misconduct in a public office.

Mr Hardy was allegedly paid more than £23,700 for providing Mr Larcombe with information - including stories on Prince William and Prince Harry - on 34 occasions, the court heard.

Mr Hardy's wife Claire, 41, who was accused of collecting tip-off fees for her husband, was cleared of aiding and abetting him.

Mr Larcombe was charged with aiding and abetting Mr Hardy to commit misconduct in a public office.

They had all faced charges as part of the Metropolitan Police's Operation Elveden probe.


Analysis

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

About 100 journalists have now been detained or interviewed under caution as part of the various police investigations into press practices.

Proving guilt has been rather more difficult: nine have been convicted of phone hacking; three for paying public officials.

Where reporters can demonstrate a clear public interest in stories for which payments are made - in John Kay's case army bullying, deaths in action and equipment failings - they have been acquitted.

Three years ago, the then director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, anticipated the problems such cases would cause and issued guidelines about bringing charges.

The guidelines say if the public interest served by the conduct outweighs the overall criminality then it's less likely a prosecution will be required.

It is a difficult balance to strike - but given the latest verdicts, prosecutors may well review whether they've got it right.


'Terrible ordeal'

Speaking afterwards, Mr Larcombe called for the "witch hunt" against journalists to end, saying he hoped he would wake up from the "nightmare" he had been living since his arrest.

Mr Kay said was a "great relief" that a three-year ordeal was over, adding: "I just hope that this result bears fruit for other colleagues in a similar predicament."

Mr Shanahan said the trial had been a "terrible ordeal" for the families of all those involved.

Image caption Bettina Jordan-Barber was jailed for 12 months for conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office

BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford said the acquittals of the journalists formed part of an emerging pattern in the high-profile "multi-million pound" Operation Elveden cases.

"What we have seen here is the official that was being paid for the stories has pleaded guilty and has effectively been convicted of making money as their job as a public official illegally, but the journalists that were paying for the story have been acquitted.

"That is raising a bit of a question mark over how the Metropolitan Police have gone about this," our correspondent said.

Mr Kay, Mr Shanahan and Mr Webster were charged with conspiring with Jordan-Barber to commit misconduct in a public office between 2004 and 2012.

Mr Webster also faced a second count of plotting misconduct with a serving officer in the armed forces in November 2010.

Image caption Former Colour Sergeant John Hardy with his wife Claire Hardy were also cleared by the jury

At the opening of the trial, prosecutor Michael Parroy QC said the case was all about greed.

"Tittle-tattle and gossip about the royal princes, William and Harry, had a special value," he said.

"As did titbits involving salacious or embarrassing conduct - 'splashes' as they called them - involving the revelation of such things as affairs between serving soldiers or their civilian counterparts; a 'love triangle'."

But Mr Kay and Mr Larcombe both insisted they were working in the public interest.

Mr Larcombe told jurors he still felt he had "done nothing wrong" and said: "I still have to be convinced why I'm sitting here."

Former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks was found not guilty of signing off payments to public officials last year.

Mr Kay, of Golders Green, north London; Mr Larcombe, of Aylesford, Kent; Mr Webster, of Goudhurst, Kent; Mr Shanahan, of Felsted, Essex; and the Hardys, of Accrington, Lancashire, all denied the charges against them.

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