Bribery act for journalists: Cover your chequebook

papers

Faced with a battering from the Leveson inquiry, Operation Elveden and Hacked Off, journalists can only look with envy at the esteem in which slumlords and ambulance chasing injury lawyers are held.

But there is another threat for newsrooms: The bribery act.

The act, which came into force in April 2011, is not a reaction to any of the issues mentioned above but a general law that makes it illegal for individuals who promise a ‘financial or other advantage’ to a public official or contracted employee in exchange for improperly performing ‘a relevant function or activity’.

Basically, offering a backhander can land you with ten years in jail or an unlimited fine.

The law was not devised with commercial contracts – not journalism – in mind. However, the risks for newsrooms are clear.

Firstly, the act extends to associates, meaning using suspect stories from freelancers or news agencies makes you potentially liable.

It also applies worldwide, so inducements to foreign officials can, theoretically, lead to uncomfortable questions at home.

However, payments to get across the border while fleeing for your life are not likely to risk a knock on the door.

Hospitality that could be construed as excessive or improper to gain an advantage falls foul of the act.

The showbiz reporter offered a night out on a record company is not going to lead to a knock on the door from Inspector Knacker.

But flying Inspector Knacker out to the fleshpots of Thailand, in the hope he’ll give you the nod the next time a 70s TV star is lifted, is another matter altogether.

Of course, it would be naive to assume chequebook journalism is not alive and well today. But sometimes, when investigating worthy stories it is impossible not to avoid paying a whistleblower for information that stands the story up.

The Telegraph reportedly paid £110,000 for the files leading to the MPs expenses scandal – and no one could argue that wasn’t in the public interest.

Although public interest is not in itself a defence the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued guidelines on how to approach the issue.

Prosecutors are asked to consider if the public interest served by the conduct in question overcomes the overall criminality. They are asked to consider areas such as the conduct in question, the extent of the wrongdoing uncovered and the harm caused.

A more thorough discussion on this can be found here.

Given the potential pitfalls, it’s easy to think the odds are against the media – but there is an important step newsrooms can take to protect themselves.

Have a system for payments in place that can be checked and signed off by senior staff or in-house lawyers. This includes checking with agencies if they are aware of the rules and have followed them.

Secondly, common sense. If a story appears to good to be true – as ever – double check.

In the current climate, to cover your back is to cover your chequebook.

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