A News of the World journalist who wrote stories about James Bulger killer Jon Venables’s cushy life behind bars has avoided jail after becoming the first reporter to be found guilty of paying a corrupt public official for tips – but the Prison Officer who provided the story was locked up for three and a half years.
There were tears and audible sighs of relief at the Old Bailey as the journalist, who cannot be named, was handed a six-month prison sentence suspended for a year for conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.
The defendant was accused of paying prison officer Scott Chapman for information about Venables after he was sent back to jail in 2010 for child porn offences.
Chapman, 42, who made £40,000 from selling information to various newspapers, was convicted of misconduct in a public office alongside his ex-partner Lynn Gaffney, 40, who let him use her bank account to channel payments.
There were muffled sounds of joy from journalists and supporters packed into the courtroom as the judge said the reporter would not be going to prison.
Judge Charles Wide told the reporter: “It’s obvious that you knew perfectly well Scott Chapman was a prison officer.
“You claim to have been acting consciously in the public interest. I do not accept that but I do accept you were trying to satisfy your demanding boss in a fiercely competitive industry.”
He added that, while there were only two articles, they were “intended to feed public loathing of Jon Venables”.
The reporter, who appeared tearful leaving the courtroom, was ordered to do 150 hours of unpaid work and wear a tag for the first three months.
Jailing Chapman for three-and-a-half years, Judge Wide said: “In no other case that has been before the court has a public official made so much money selling so many stories to so many newspapers.
“You were never a principled whistle-blower. You were simply in it for the money.”
He added that his first call to a Sun reporter in which he gave away Venables’s assumed name was a “seriously aggravating factor”.
Mother-of-two Gaffney was jailed for 13 weeks because she had been a “pro-active participant” with Chapman and had received “substantial reward” for effectively money laundering for him, the judge said.
To date, despite the conviction of public officers, the ex-NotW employee is the only journalist to be found guilty of paying corrupt officials since police launched their multimillion-pound investigation, codenamed Operation Elveden, in 2011.
In mitigation, John Butterfield QC argued that there was no need to set a deterrent sentence because the police investigation had already had “a significant and lasting effect” on the entire newspaper industry.
He said the reporter had “hit rock bottom both financially and emotionally” and, as a result of the prosecution, was left with a reputation in “shreds”.
The reporter had just been the “latest in a long line” of people Chapman had approached and the NotW only ran two stories about board games and Venables’s fitness regime – all of which was already in the public domain, the lawyer said.
The trial had heard that Chapman first contacted the Sun in 2010 and went on to sell stories to a host of other newspapers including the NotW and the Daily Star Sunday, using Gaffney’s bank account in exchange for a third of his earnings.
The tabloids published a string of articles about Venables’s life behind bars which ranged from his efforts to lose weight to his love of Harry Potter books.
A security chief from the prison where he worked said Chapman’s leaks had a “catastrophic” effect on the operation of the jail and left Venables feeling “very suspicious” of staff charged with his care.
But under cross-examination, she was accused of a “serious breach of duty” after it emerged she had formed that view from secret talks with Venables in her search for the source.
Chapman said he first contacted the Sun about Venables because he was unhappy about the way he was given special treatment, and then turned to other newspapers in an attempt to stop his Sun contact “pestering” him.
He told jurors he would usually send images of his prison ID card and a wage slip as confirmation to journalists.
Prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC queried the public interest of stories he described as “drivel” and “tittle tattle”, and asked Chapman: “Is it important that Jon Venables likes Harry Potter?”
The journalist denied knowing who Chapman was or receiving images of his ID card and wage slip, despite an email to a NotW boss which suggested the opposite.
The defendant went on to insist it was in the public interest that the newspaper exposed Venables’s “comfortable” lifestyle behind bars.
The journalist said: “This was a public interest story we were writing about Jon Venables, who abducted a two-year-old from a shopping centre, tortured and murdered him.
“He had been taken in by the Prison Service, given millions of pounds for a new identity, then repeat-offended and the Prison Service deal with it by making his life as comfortable as possible.”
Chapman and Gaffney, both of Corby, Northamptonshire, and the NotW reporter had denied wrong-doing alongside Daily Star Sunday reporter Tom Savage, 37, from south London, who was cleared of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.