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Complainant Name:
Press Complaints Commission

Clauses Noted: 16

Publication: The Guardian


This complaint was adjudicated at the Press Complaints Commission's final meeting on 4 September 2014. While the PCC has now been closed, the ruling has been published on this website as a public record of the outcome of the complaint.

The Press Complaints Commission investigated whether The Guardian had breached Clause 16 (Payments to criminals) of the Editors' Code of Practice in relation to an article headlined "Yes I was guilty but I was prosecuted on the basis of Constance Briscoe's deception", published on 4 May 2014.

The complaint was not upheld.

The investigation concerned a comment piece by the former MP Chris Huhne, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice in 2013. It discussed the subsequent conviction of Constance Briscoe, a barrister and former Recorder, for attempting to pervert the course of justice during the investigation into Mr Huhne's offence, and argued that while correct, his conviction had been the culmination of a flawed process.

The Commission received a complaint from a member of the public that any payment for the article would breach the Editors' Code. It determined that this matter was best investigated on an own-volition basis.

The newspaper explained that the manner in which Mr Huhne's contract was organised meant that there was no discussion of payment for the specific article; Mr Huhne was contracted to write a fixed number of columns on topical issues; the article under complaint was one of these. After the initiation of the PCC investigation, Mr Huhne had waived a portion of his payment, corresponding to his fee per article. The newspaper argued that Clause 16 was therefore not engaged: there was no offer of payment which induced or rewarded the production of an article on this subject; and there was no payment.

In any case, the newspaper said, there was no breach of Clause 16: the article had not exploited a particular crime, nor had it glamorised or glorified crime. Instead, it served a public interest in shining light on Ms Briscoe's deception of the police; its impact on other cases before the courts; and Mr Huhne's initial not-guilty plea. Mr 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.

The commissioning editor had discussed with Mr Huhne the public interest in his commenting on the prosecution of Constance Briscoe before publication, but not the payment. The newspaper accepted that this raised an issue of training, which it would address through editorial legal briefings.

Not Upheld


Clause 16 states that "payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information, which seek to exploit a particular crime or to glorify or glamorise crime in general, must not be made directly or via agents to convicted or confessed criminals ..." The Code does allow, however, for a public interest defence for making such payments.

The Commission considered first the newspaper's contention that Clause 16 was not engaged. While this was not a clear-cut case, Mr Huhne had written the article, with the agreement of his commissioning editor, in fulfilment of the obligations he had undertaken in exchange for payment. Regardless of Mr Huhne's decision to waive the payment after receipt of the complaint, this contract constituted an on-going offer of payment to Mr Huhne. Clause 16 therefore applied.

It was plain that the article did not glorify Mr Huhne's crime or crime generally. The difficult question for the Commission was whether it had exploited his crime, and, if so, whether a public interest justified payment; in simpler terms, whether it fell foul of Clause 16's aim, which is to prevent criminals from profiting by their crimes.

While the article discussed Mr Huhne's experiences, it did not focus on his crime; rather, he commented on Ms Briscoe's conviction, the role her evidence had played in his prosecution, and his broader concerns about the criminal justice system. The conviction of a former member of the judiciary for such a crime was a matter of very significant public interest, which would have implications for other legal proceedings in which she had been concerned, of which Mr Huhne's was the most directly relevant. Mr 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 Mr Huhne's crime, and there was no breach of Clause 16 of the Code.

Date Published:

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