Chris Boffey: News International should pay Sun crime reporter's legal costs – and give him back his job
Judges tend to use less racy language then members of the Fourth Estate*, so when his honour Timothy Pontius QC expressed "considerable disappointment" that News International would not take "moral responsibility" and "dip into its capacious pocket" to pay the prosecution costs of Anthony France, the Sun crime reporter found guilty of paying a public official for exclusive stories, it can be interpreted that he was not happy, but that would not tell the whole story.
In Sun speak it would be "Judge fury at skinflint Murdoch" or "Sun dumps on its own" or even "Crime reporter knifed by Sun".
France was found guilty earlier this year and at his trial the judge had great sympathy for his plight and refused to jail him for paying a police officer for stories, instead giving him an 18 month suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service.
Pontius acknowledged that it was the culture of the Sun to pay for stories and that France had inherited the paid source when he became one of the paper's reporters. He described him as being "of hitherto unblemished character" and "essentially a decent man of solid integrity".
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After the jury's verdict the prosecution applied for costs and were awarded more than £34,000 on the basis that NI, which had paid France's legal fees, would do the honourable thing.
But in the words of France's barrister Adrian Keeling QC, "NI's explicit position is that they will not pay" and – sit down as you read this – have started disciplinary proceedings against France.
The judge immediately reduced the costs by 90 per cent but France, who now faces the sack, will have to pay nearly £3,500 out of his own pocket and this despite the judge saying the company bears moral responsibility, if not legal culpability, for France doing his job as instructed.
France is now, at the age of 41, a man with a criminal conviction. He is no stranger to struggle having worked hard doing the rounds of reporting shifts and contracts before landing a full-time job on the Sun. At some of the places, and on some doorsteps, it would not have been easy to be accepted being a black man built like a heavyweight boxer.
France is one of the good guys and News International is wrong to hang him out to dry, but his position tells you all you need to know about the company. The management is hated by its staff for its failures to support its journalists, for disregarding the basic premise of not naming sources and for the weasel attitude of bearing no responsibility for its employees' actions because of the fear of corporate action.
I know that Kelvin McKenzie, the former Sun editor and present-day columnist, has dipped into his own pocket to help out some of the reporters and he may do so again but that does not get the company off the moral hook. It should pay France's legal fees, give him his job back and look after the other members of staff who are still in limbo.
*Journalism has long been regarded as an important force in government, so vital to the functioning of a democracy that it has been portrayed as an integral component of democracy itself. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”. Carlyle saw the press as instrumental to the birth and growth of democracy, spreading facts and opinions and sparking revolution against tyranny.
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government