Phone Hacking: Prosecution Guidelines Issued in U.K. for Journalists

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Rules to decide on whether or not criminal proceedings will be brought are published for newsgathering methods with phone and email hacking at the forefront.

LONDON -- The Crown Prosecution Service has published its final guidelines on the prosecution of journalists over illicit newsgathering methods such as phone or email hacking.

The service, which brings such charges against people to the British courts, said the fresh guidelines on deciding whether or not to go to court Thursday would still hold true for ongoing cases such as the high-profile charges brought against ex-CEO of News Corp.'s embattled News International U.K. newspaper arm Rebekah Brooks and the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

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Brooks and Coulson currently charges in connection with phone hacking, including the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, said Thursday that the guidance underlines the need for prosecutors to consider public interest factors before deciding whether to bring criminal charges against journalists.

"The purpose of the guidelines is to strike the right balance between the important public interest in a free press and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing," said Starmer.

Changes include fresh guidance on prosecutions in cases involving so called "fishing expeditions," whereby journalists do not have prima facie evidence of wrongdoing before using illicit newsgathering methods.

Another guideline gives examples for the first time about what prosecutors should consider "important matters of public debate." The guidance says that "serious impropriety, significant unethical conduct and significant incompetence" should all fall under this category.

"When considering invasions of privacy, regard must be given to the level of seriousness of the invasion, whether on the facts there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, and whether the conduct in question was proportionate to the public interest claimed to have been served," the CPS guidelines state.

The guidelines mark the first formal CPS policy involving the prosecution of journalists.

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Prosecutors are also advised to consider whether the public interest served by journalistic conduct outweighs the overall criminality before bringing criminal proceedings.

The acting chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Hunt, welcomed the guidance and said he hopes the guidance will "generate a greater understanding and appreciation of the public interest, and also of the need to take it into account in editorial decision-making."