A barrister who successfully defended the rights of journalists to pay whistle-blowers for stories deemed to be in the public interest has said he always knew it was a ‘genuinely important’ case.
John Butterfield QC, who represented former News of the World journalist Lucy Panton when she had her conviction for paying public officials quashed by the Court of Appeal, said the issues debated in the case touched on the role of a free press and how democracy operates.
And he said that justice had been done today when the CPS confirmed it would not be seeking a re-trial and reporting restrictions – banning the press from naming Ms Panton – were lifted.
Lucy Panton was the first person to be found guilty of paying public officials under Operation Elveden, an investigation by the Met into allegations of inappropriate payments to police. She was arrested in December 2011, charged in July 2013 with conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, found guilty by a jury, but had her conviction quashed on appeal earlier this month.
Ms Panton was accused of paying a prison officer for information about Jon Venables, the killer of James Bulger, while he was in jail for child porn offences.
In the almost four years since the start of Operation Elvedon, at least 34 journalists have been arrested and/or charged.
Following his closing speech during Ms Panton’s appeal, Mr Butterfield made headlines, striking a chord with many of the UK’s leading journalists, as he launched a passionate defence of Freedom of the Press, and a journalist’s right to pay for stories.
“It is extraordinary and troubling in a supposedly free society to have journalists on trial for articles written in good faith during the course of their job,” said the No5 Chambers barrister, the UK’s largest Barristers Chambers, who was appointed Silk last year.
“We NEED journalists to be brave, we NEED them to be pushing at the edges.
“A key part of democracy is a Free Press because people in power don’t like us knowing what they’re up to. If there’s any form of whistle-blowing, it is justifiable for money to change hands. It is appropriate to reimburse the whistle-blower against the possibility they might be sacked. They call it a crime, we call it democracy.”
Mr Butterfield said that Ms Panton was relieved her ordeal had now ended, and said the case had given him a different view of the UK media.
“It has been a fascinating case, and what has perhaps surprised me the most is how journalists from rival papers have all pulled together. The camaraderie between all of those charged has been incredible, and I have been struck by how they have all stuck together.”