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Under the light wood walls of a modern courtroom in the City of London, a British media morality story is playing out. Its conclusion will settle the fate of two long-serving journalists on the Sun, the country’s best-selling newspaper.
In 2011, Jamie Pyatt and Chris Pharo were experienced, long-standing journalists on the Sun – a scoop-full reporter and an assistant editor. Months after the phone hacking scandal pierced the public consciousness, their working lives changed dramatically.
In November 2011 Pyatt was arrested and in January 2012 Pharo likewise, by officers from Operation Elveden, Scotland Yard’s anti-corruption inquiry into tabloid papers. Their homes were searched and they were questioned for hours in different police stations.
Pyatt and Pharo are now on trial in the airy pine square of Court 13 of the Old Bailey – their second criminal trial in a year.
Whether they are victims of unsubstantiated charges, or did what the state says – entered into a “corrupt relationship” with a serving police officer – is a matter for the 12 jurors trying them.
Both are charged with making unlawful payments to a detective constable with Surrey Police, to obtain information and photographs for stories.
As well as examining the conduct of the defendants and the prosecuting authorities, the case is shining a spotlight on the Sun’s owner, News UK, Britain’s biggest newspaper group, which also owns the Times and Sunday Times.
In the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal, News International’s Management and Standards Committee allowed Operation Elveden access to the paraphernalia of modern corporate journalism: cash payment records, emails and expenses claims.
Detectives discovered that the Sun had paid around £10,000 in cash to a policeman.
According to the Crown, between 2002 and 2011, the policeman – known in court as Officer 2044 – was paid for supplying, among things, witness statements from a rape inquiry; information about the drink-driving arrest of a boyfriend of Jordan; and a photograph of a suspect in the stabbing of pregnant Abigail Witchalls.
Pyatt, 51, the Sun’s Thames Valley reporter, accepts that he paid Officer 2044 for his help on 13 stories published in the Sun. But importantly, Pyatt, the Sun’s news editor under editor Kelvin MacKenzie, denies this amounts to a criminal offence. The jury have not yet heard his defence.
Likewise the jury have not yet heard from Pharo, 46, Assistant Editor (News) – effectively in charge of the Sun’s newsgathering operation – who it is alleged knew about and approved the payments. He, too, denies the charge. He is expected to present his defence first.
Pharo and Pyatt have already been tried for the payments at Kingston Crown Court between October and January 2015, when a jury could not agree a verdict.
The Crown Prosecution Service decided their case was deserving of a retrial. Theirs is the final prosecution of journalists currently planned by Operation Elveden.
Pharo and Pyatt say they have been wrongly targeted by the authorities, not once, but twice.
Within weeks, ordinary members of the public will decide who is right – the journalists or the state.
Charge: Aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office between 22 April 2002 and 12 January 2011.
Court: Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), London
Judge: Charles Wide QC
Prosecution counsel: Julian Christopher QC and Stuart Biggs
Defence counsel for Jamie Pyatt: Richard Kovalevsky QC and Jamas Hodivala
Defence counsel for Chris Pharo: Nigel Rumsfitt QC and Ross Johnson
See openDemocracyUK's full series on the Sun trials here.