Budget leak was in ‘public interest’ says Sun journalist accused of paying public official

The Sun's Whitehall editor Clodagh Hartley. Picture: PA/John Stillwell

The Sun's Whitehall editor Clodagh Hartley. Picture: PA/John Stillwell - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

A Sun journalist accused of paying a government press officer for leaked details of the Budget told jurors there was “massive public interest” in running the story before it was subjected to “spin”.

The night before Labour’s 2010 Budget, Clodagh Hartley said she met HMRC press officer Jonathan Hall in a Starbucks cafe to copy down the secret details of Alistair Darling’s speech, which were published in the newspaper the following day.

The Whitehall editor told jurors in her Old Bailey trial that the financial plans were particularly important in the context of the austerity measures the government was taking at the time and the up-coming general election.

She said: “I remember Jonathan saying that he may be able to provide us with some of the details of the Budget up-coming.

“He said that he would hopefully be able to provide us with what was known as defensive lines the press office took with regards to inquiries about the Budget.”

Hartley said she told a senior colleague about the source for the story to get permission to leave the office at 5pm to meet Hall, because it was a busy time of day for the newspaper.

He said it was “great” before asking her to try to get some sort of documentary evidence, she said.

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Recalling the meeting, she said: “I met him at Starbucks near Embankment station.

“He had a salmon coloured piece of paper that had the press office lines to take on the Budget, covering the elements that are printed here (referring to the a copy of the story).

“I had to copy down the detail onto my reporter’s notepad.”

Justifying the story, she said: “I thought there was a massive public interest in this, for our readers having this information before it was packaged and submitted to media spin the next day.

“There was a public interest in our readers being allowed to form an opinion for themselves before it was given to them by Government.”

After meeting Hall, she spoke to Mr Darling’s special adviser who neither confirmed nor denied the details, she said.

The tip about an increase in duties on fuel, alcohol and smoking went into a double page spread under the headline Don’t Fudge It.

The court has heard how Hall was paid £750 for the Budget details through the News International (NI) payment system.

It was not the first time that Hall had received payment from NI for story tips to Hartley.

She said he first contacted her in late 2007 or early 2008 about a potential showbiz story about Rolling Stones musician Ronnie Wood after being given her phone number by a mutual friend.

Then after he began working for HMRC in August 2009, he gave her a story about a Directgov website advertising campaign for which celebrities such as Kelly Brook were paid.

Asked if that story was in the public interest too, Hartley said: “It seemed like excessive spending, a vanity project, at a time we were facing cuts - potentially we were going to have to tighten our belts.

“It seemed like frivolous spending, that’s the view I took.”

The journalist went on to say she had no concerns about paying Hall for that tip in December 2009 and it was only after this initial story that she became aware of where he was working.

She told jurors that Hall did not show any particular political allegiance, but he seemed “frustrated with how things were run in Whitehall” and frequently used the words “shambolic” and “fiasco”.

She said he also told her that if special advisers had rebutted or denied stories she put to them, that they had been “told to lie”.

Hartley is on trial alongside Hall’s girlfriend, Polish receptionist Marta Bukarewicz, who is accused of channelling his payments through her bank account, in exchange for around £850.

On Wednesday, Bukarewicz told the court how Hartley had suggested the arrangement to Hall because he was a “protected source” and it was “standard practice at The Sun”.

Quizzed on why the newspaper would pay thousands of pounds to Hall, she told jurors she thought it was for assisting and advising Hartley with “better explanation or clarification”.

She denied taking a cut of the proceeds, saying she kept money back to pay shared bills and to buy plane tickets to Poland to visit her mother and attend her god daughter’s wedding.

In total, Hall allegedly received around £17,000 from NI over three years, more than £13,000 of which went through Bukarewicz’s account, the court has heard.

Cross examining, prosecutor Zoe Johnson QC asked: “Did you ask him what all this is about?”

Bukarewicz replied: “I trusted him, so I didn’t question much, as stupid as it sounds, but I didn’t.”

She said: “I was told it was standard practice at The Sun for paying protected sources, to protect their sources.”

Ms Johnson said: “I’m going to suggest to you Miss Bukarewicz that you knew that what he was doing was illegal.”

She replied: “No I did not. I was not aware.”

Hartley, 40, of Brockley, south east London and Bukarewicz, 45, of Kentish Town, deny conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

The trial continues.