Four British journalists cleared over illegal payments

LONDON (AFP) - Four senior journalists at Britain's top-selling The Sun tabloid were on Friday cleared of wrongdoing over the payment of public officials for stories, including about Princes William and Harry.

Chief reporter John Kay and royal editor Duncan Larcombe were acquitted over their contacts with two military sources following a trial at London's central criminal court, the Old Bailey.

Executive editor Fergus Shanahan and deputy editor Geoff Webster were also acquitted of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office by signing off on the payments.

Kay, Shanahan and Webster were accused of breaking the law over payments worth £100,000 (S$200,000) made between 2004 and 2012 to a senior official at the defence ministry, Bettina Jordan-Barber.

Jordan-Barber admitted in 2013 to selling information about army disciplinary investigations, sex scandals and casualties in Afghanistan to The Sun, and earlier this year she was jailed for 12 months.

Larcombe had been charged with aiding and abetting a former soldier, John Hardy, to commit misconduct in public office by selling stories about William and Harry among others.

The journalist was cleared of wrongdoing, as were Hardy and Hardy's wife, Claire, who was accused of helping him.

In emotional scenes outside court, Larcombe condemned the police investigation as a "witch hunt".

Kay added: "It's a great relief that a three-year ordeal is over. I just hope that this result bears fruit for other colleagues in a similar predicament."

Both Kay and Larcombe had insisted they were working in the public interest, while deputy editor Webster said he had no idea that Kay's military source was a public official.

The police investigation into payments to officials began following the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, which exposed the murky workings of the tabloid press.

But out of 24 journalists brought to trial over alleged illegal payments to officials, from The Sun and other newspapers, there have so far been only two convictions, according to a tally by The Guardian newspaper.

These include former News of the World journalist Dan Evans and a second journalist from the same paper who cannot be named for legal reasons.

Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of both The Sun and The News of the World and the most high-profile suspect, was last year acquitted of signing off on illegal payments.

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