The Director for Public Prosecutions (DPP) who is Britain’s highest ranking prosecutor has publicly defended journalists who risk their liberty by breaking the law in order to break stories which are in the public interest. He revealed that guidelines had been drafted which are aimed at protecting such controversial cases.
Keir Starmer stated that “would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question”. He stated that prosecutors must understand that during the course of an investigation journalists are most likely to cross paths with the criminal law which is why the new guidelines take this fact into consideration. The guidelines will aid prosecutors to take into account the crime committed against the public interest pursued by the journalist and conduct a balancing exercise to see which outweighed the other.
Mr Starmer made the statement at the end of another week surrounded with the controversy of whistleblower Edward Snowden who has caused a storm in Westminster. Calls from a Tory backbencher have requested that the police investigate a major national newspaper for publishing Mr Snowden’s revelations about GCHQ’s wide surveillance activities. Without explicitly mentioning Snowden’s name, the DPP stated that his guidelines had been specially drafted in order to accommodate journalists who want to pursue difficult stories but fear the criminal law. The guidelines will place great emphasis on a public interest threshold meaning that journalists are likely to avoid prosecution if they meet this standard. Mr Starmer stated that he realises there is a great number of offences which a journalist may commit during the course of his business which will be prevented by the new rules which will avoid prosecution in such circumstances.
Starmer said that there are many current and past examples of journalists who on face value have breached the criminal law but have done so pursuing a greater good, meaning a criminal conviction is not in itself in the public interest. The starting point for prosecutors under the guidelines will be to consider whether an offence has been committed, if not then there will be no further action. If an offence however has been committed then the question is whether the public interest pursued ought weighed the criminal offence committed. If this is the case then there will be no offence. The changes are set to be one of the last which Mr Starmer introduces as DPP since he departs the post at the end of the month.