Andy Coulson and Rolf Harris sentenced: Do the punishments really fit the crimes?

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

It is difficult not to compare the sentences handed down to the News of the World's hacking five and with the jail term given to serial child abuser Rolf Harris.

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson received 18 months, news editor Greg Miskiw and chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck six months each, assistant news editor James Weatherup four months suspended and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire also received a suspended sentence.

Harris, 84, was taken down to spend five years and nine months for a catalogue of crimes committed over a lifetime and the maximum sentence was 10 years

However he will not face trial on charges of downloading indecent images of children and the case will be left on the file unlike Coulson and the his former royal reporter Clive Goodman who will face a retrial on the charge of paying public officials. It is tempting to ask: where is the consistency?

Ok we may be comparing apples with pears, but in the Harris case women have been traumatised for life and the court heard harrowing impact statements from the victims. Coulson et al will be spending more time behind bars than people convicted of violent crimes.

At this stage I declare an interest having worked with and against Coulson, Miskiw, Thurlbeck and Weatherup. They are not wicked people but knowing the culture of tabloids they were under immense pressure to deliver week after week and in doing so broke the law.

Much was heard in the case of the bullying nature at the newspaper and this was and is endemic amongst the tabloids. When I was news editor of the Sunday Mirror I had one editor who, within an hour of the edition going to bed at 7pm on a Saturday night, would demand a news list for the following week and curse and scream if there was not a potential front page lead amongst the stories. This was the culture of the times and it just got worse. Bullying started at the top, not just with editors but publishers scared of falling circulations.

As Mr Justice Saunders said of Coulson, he did not start the hacking at the News of the World but instead of stopping it, he encouraged the practice. The decline in standards started a long time before Coulson.

There are more trials to come and other newspapers are implicated in hacking. Let's hope the hysteria and vindictiveness calms down. If people have broken the law they should be punished but sending reporters to jail helps nobody.

There needs to be a closer look at the governance of newspapers and fear taken away from reporters. There will always be rogues within the profession but fewer bad apples if publishers, editors and news editors become more enlightened.