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U.K. Prosecutors Explain ‘Public Interest’ Defense for Media

Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- British prosecutors probing scandals at News Corp.’s U.K. tabloids received guidelines for assessing how a “public interest” defense may be used by journalists charged with bribery and phone hacking.

The guidelines will help prosecutors decide whether to charge reporters and editors who may cite the defense to justify illegal payments to public officials or the interception of mobile-phone voice mail to get stories, the Crown Prosecution Service said today on its website.

Before charges can be filed in cases involving the media, “prosecutors must be satisfied that there is enough reliable, credible, and admissible evidence to rebut any suggestion that the conduct in question was justified as being in the public interest,” Keir Starmer, the agency’s director of public prosecutions, said in a statement.

Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit, and seven other people were charged with conspiring to hack phone messages. Similar charges may be filed over bribery and computer hacking in three related police probes in which more than 80 people have been arrested.

Judge Brian Leveson, who is leading an inquiry triggered by the scandals, asked prosecutors to explain how a public-interest defense may be used when the law that’s been broken doesn’t include the exception.

“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,” CPS said.

Prosecutors should consider charges in cases with several possible public-interest defenses, as long as they’re drawn to the court’s attention. The most important question for prosecutors is whether the public interest served by the conduct in question outweighs any criminal acts, the CPS said.

Conduct that can serve the public interest includes exposing criminal behavior as well as exposing a “miscarriage of justice” or a cover-up of illegal actions, the CPS said. It also covers exposing matters of “important public debate” such as unethical conduct and “significant incompetence.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Larson in London at elarson4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@bloomberg.net

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