“It is not only governments that are powerful, the press are powerful” a judge has told an Old Bailey jury considering charges against employees of The Sun newspaper. Summing up the case, which began on 6th January, Mr Justice Saunders said that while a free press was vital it “still had to obey the law of the land”.
The trial is over charges relating to alleged illegal payments to a Ministry of Defence civil servant, Bettina Jordan-Barber, and John Hardy, a former instructor at the Sandhurst Royal Military College. In total the civil servant received £100,000 and the instructor received £42,000 for information, much of it about Princes William and Harry while they were military cadets.
The prosecution say that the selling of the information led to the offence of “misconduct in a public office”, while the defence argue the material covered did not impact on national security and was in the “public interest” as it exposed failings in the armed forces, such as bullying or shortages of equipment.
Justice Saunders told the jury it was not for them to decide if the law on misconduct in a public office is a good law or not and directed them to ignore any claims that the defendants were unaware of the legislation. The judge noted that “ignorance of the law was no defence”, adding “you can’t kill your wife and come to court and say you didn’t know it was a crime”. He said that it was the journalist’s responsibility to know what the law was. “We hear a lot about [newspapers having] in-house lawyers” he said “but there is no evidence they were ever asked about paying public officials.”
In the dock at the eight week trial have been Sun executive editor Fergus Shanahan, Royal editor Duncan Larcombe, deputy editor Geoffrey Webster, former chief reporter John Kay, ex-soldier John Hardy and his wife Claire. The jury have three counts of the indictment to consider, the first against Kay, Shanahan and Webster over payments to the civil servant. The second against Webster over the alleged purchase of a picture of a female army officer from a person only known as “X” and the third against Larcombe and the Hardy’s over Sandhurst information.
All of the defendants deny all of the charges and the jury are now considering their verdicts.