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£2,000 fee 'did not breach PCC Code' on payment to criminals

The London Evening Standard has been cleared of any wrongdoing after it paid money to a contact in order to gain evidence for a story.

In March this year the newspaper ran a story about the industry in fake identities, which it claimed was worth an estimated £1.3bn a year.

The article “We buy a minister’s ‘passport’ for £2,000″ followed an investigation by an undercover journalist, but Clive Soley of London said it had breached Clause 16 (Payment to criminals) of the Code of Practice.

The complainant was concerned that there had been a payment to a criminal for the false passports, and also objected that the newspaper had apparently not sought to contact the police with the information it had obtained, and had only co-operated with the police once contacted by them.

He also claimed that there was not a convincing public interest defence as information about the general issue of criminal gangs and forged documents was already well-known and in the public domain.

The complaint was rejected by the Press Complaints Commission.

The newspaper suggested that the complainant had misunderstood the provisions of the Code, and that money had not been paid to a convicted or confessed criminal.

It said the article did not exploit a particular crime, or glorify or glamorise crime in general, and confirmed that it had spoken to police on the day of the story – saying that the question of who contacted whom first was irrelevant.

It said the story clearly highlighted an issue of genuine public concern, and the payment had allowed the journalist to expose illegal activity in the public interest.

Finding no breach of Clause 16, which prohibits payment for information which ‘seek to exploit a particular crime or to glorify or glamorise crime in general’, the Commission said it did not consider that the payment in question had done any of these things.

It said payment had been necessary to secure evidence on an issue of legitimate public concern and had not been made to a convicted or confessed criminal in relation to a particular crime that had already been committed, or to glamorise crime in general.

It added that the Code does not require newspapers to alert the police and so the Evening Standard’s failure to do so had not breached the Code.