The Sunday Times jails its source

11 March 2013

In a long piece in the last issue of the Sunday Times (£) Isabel Oakeshott, its political editor, wrote of her relationship with Vicky Pryce. She sobbed and sighed. She was full of sympathy. You can almost hear the tears pitter-patter on her keyboard as she describes how Pryce had become a ‘broken woman’.

The reader has to stare hard at her words to realise that Pryce was Oakeshott’s source, and that Oakeshott and her editor John Witherow had handed her over to the police. The eight-month prison sentence Mr Justice Sweeney gave Pryce today followed. Of course it did. Journalists once knew that if you betrayed a source they could end up on the dole, or in prison or, in the most severe circumstances, dead.

Writing in the Spectator last month, I explained:

‘The requirement to protect your sources was the one moral principle journalists had. Self-interest played its part — confidential sources will not speak to reporters if they suspect they will reveal their identities to the police or their employers. But a reporter’s honour mattered as much. You had made a deal with a source. You had given your promise and shaken hands. Your source could lose his or her job or liberty if you broke your word. You had to keep it.’

That was then. To read Oakeshott’s bluster today you would think that Pryce had stabbed her in the back rather than the other way round. Oakeshott describes how Pryce had had the impertinence to talk to the Mail on Sunday as well as the Sunday Times. ‘She had double-crossed me,’ wails the poor victimised thing. ‘While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper…This was an extraordinary betrayal and deeply underhand after everything we had been through together. Our relationship had been based on trust. I had kept my side of the bargain; she had broken hers.’

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Oakeshott does not understand that the moral obligations between a journalist and his or her sources flow in one direction only. They are putting their life and liberty in your hands not vice versa. They are free to deny the truth of the stories you print, if that what it takes to keep them in a job or out of prison. They can speak to other journalists; they can do whatever they want. You are in their debt. They are not in yours.

In an couple of paragraphs, which are if anything even more embarrassing, Oakeshott moves on to deal with the tricky question of why the Sunday Times delivered Pryce to the cops. We put up ‘a vigorous fight’ she assures her readers. ‘But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.’

This is not how the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, described it. In a statement issued on October 3 last year, he said that the CPS had advised the police that they needed the confidential information from Pryce in Oakeshott’s possession if they were to send Pryce and Chris Huhne to the dock. In October 2011, the authorities secured a court order for the ‘newspaper to produce material to the police’. The Sunday Times appealed, as it should have done. But, Starmer continued, Witherow and Oakeshott’s resolution soon faded. They did not fight to protect their source ‘but subsequently consented to producing the material in question just before the appeal was due to be heard, on 20 January this year’.

The emails they handed over were crucial, Starmer implied. They ensured there was ‘sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce for perverting the course of justice’.

Journalists once went to prison rather than reveal a source. Now they can’t even go to an appeal court. Instead, Oakeshott’s source is in jail. I asked friends of Pryce to ask her on my behalf if the Sunday Times had sought her permission before it gave detectives what they needed to turn her into ‘a broken woman’.

‘No, it did not,’ came the reply.

My Guardian colleague Marina Hyde said that the lesson of the Sunday Times’ treatment of Pryce was that no one should talk to journalists. Perhaps that is going too far; at least I hope it is. It is not going too far, however, to say that no one in their right mind should talk to Isabel Oakeshott on grounds of taste as much as anything else.

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Show comments
  • Swank

    Well said, Mr Cohen.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Journalists are the scum of the Earth. And I say this with all due respect, because no respect is due.


    Great post

  • Peter Davies

    Agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. Oakshott has become the poster girl for the ceaseless ‘never trust a journalist’ advice offered by many people in the PR industry.

  • The Ayatollah Buggeri

    I would go further than the author and suggest that Oakeshott herself should now be investigated for a possible charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. When Pryce told her about the speeding points scam, Oakeshott agreed (her emails reveal) to help Pryce in her aim of having Huhne charged, while avoiding charges herself. This goes beyond protecting a journalistic source: she was colluding in a criminal act herself. In the absence of any public interest defence – and as far as I’m aware, Oakeshott never claimed any – this journalist needs to be asked some hard questions by the law.

    • John Airey

      Indeed – there is no pubilc interest defence in covering up a criminal act. The worst of it is that Mrs Pryce is going onto media outlets complaining that women are forced into criminal acts.

      What next? A book from Ian Huntley on child protection? A book from Louise Woodward on child care? Or perhaps a book from Emma Way on advanced driving skills?

      However laudable this book is and its beneficiaries – I suspect the profits of the book will be seized.

  • jazz606

    I must say I didn’t know that anyone read the Sunday Times anymore.


    Shame on Oakshott – she debased her profession. Wasn’t a law suite won on just that basis in the US recently?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Journalism is no a profession. It requires no training. It is a trade, and none the worse for that.


        I think that’s debatable?

  • Terence Hale

    Revenge is something to do with getting even. Now the law has evened the even.

  • NewsTweet

    quite right

  • wcm_eu

    The judge should have had latitude within jurisprudence to consider the Oakeshott-Times side of this story, but on the other hand, it was Pryce’s objective to nail Chris Huhne by publicising his infraction and her papering-over of it. Nonetheless, the judge should have clearly seen the core breaches of law as infractions, and disallowed criminal prosecutions on the stupidty that followed from these two stupid dames trying to play hardball politics.

    We seem not live in a nation that permitsor trains judges to exercise common sense and instill common decency in the judicial and law-enforcement processes. We linve in a politically corrected, Americanised-to-the-rotten-core Totalitarian state.

    Isabel Oakeshott’s behaviour and judgment is typicla of a generation of rising “professionals”, who see Truth as absolutes and Law Enforcement and Law Courts as everyday tools to be used or considered as they pursue their own bloody ambitions.

    Fascism understood such a groundswell of similar moral compunctions in the re-invention/survivalists years that followed the undoing of core institutions nearly a century ago. As the Bank of england has rightly noted, the recent Global Financial Crisis was an unsettling and displacing world war on scale with those of the last century. Today’s Fascists are most often carrying Anglo-Saxon passports, and they are disproportionately likely to be women and born after 1979. For the moment, Isabel Oakeshott is not specificall in this class.

  • nick porter

    How about the journalist advising Pryce to make a full confession to the DPP or whoever else might be more appropriate,then stand as a witness against Huhne.Her own prosecution could be ruled not in the public interest.The journalist could in due course benefit from exclusives with Pryce.It seems clear that the journalist put her own interests in a scoop above the Nation’s and Pryce’s.
    Shame Leveson didn’t get a chance to consider the matter.

    • salieri

      Agreed: your comment is much closer to the mark. Judging by those very disturbing emails, the general feeling of distaste has less to do with protection of sources than open incitement to manufacture a defence.

  • Tom Burroughes

    I would guess that this woman’s career in journalism is finished. She won’t live this down.

    • Daniel Maris

      She was on Sky the other day. Murdoch moves in mysterious ways.

    • flangini

      No, she will be moved to a desk. She will then order others to do interviews
      “on the record”.

  • steveyt ff

    see the below link for another example of a journo betraying his source. the journo in question? Nick Cohen.

    • Mark Cooper

      That’s a bit of a bullshit accusation.No doubt Nick would argue that he made it clear to Tim Johnson that he wanted to talk on the record. It could also simply be a misunderstanding. I can also assure you (though have no way of knowing if it was the case here) that many many people who tell hacks ‘You can quote me on this” go back on that when they see their words in black and white.

      What is more serious is the lack of understanding of economics and financial markets exposed in that article. Most notably the talk of ‘hundreds of millions” of people in the developing world losing their livelihoods. Since the GFC, hundreds of millions of people in the developing worlds have, in fact, been moving out of poverty and getting richer. In much of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America, growth has been carrying on quite nicely. All thanks to globalisation, capitalism and financial engineering…

      • steveyt ff

        Maybe Nick did say that the discussion was on the record, but in this instance, given the fact that Cohen also totally misrepresents the mathematician’s views (in a piece which as you say is borderline illiterate in economic terms), I’d probably be less charitable than you.

        See here for another instance of Cohen misrepresenting his sources by the way

        I’m sure most journos have been gulty of this sort of thing at one point or naother. But it’s galling to see Cohen painting himself as a shining light in his oh-so-noble profession when he’s as tarnished as the rest of them.

  • Matt Bradley

    Really not sure I agree with Nick here (how apt that phrase is in this context).

    Seems to me that Pryce was the author of her own destruction here, and as much as ST may have not defended her as vigorously as they were capable, I imagine they will have considered in their decision the fact that Pryce had been less than honest with them as well, meaning that they could well have been defending a case on the basis of inaccurate testimony from their source.

  • Harriet_Vane

    Isabel, Isabel Isabel, was it all worth it? Enjoy the thirty pieces of silver.

  • Eddie

    Vicky Price is a nasty, vindictive, vengeful, destructive gorgon. We must all be glad that she is not our mother, and pity those not so fortunate.
    Pryce is not a victim; she is the creator of much pain and grief for many.
    If she were a man, there wouldn’t be an issue here. Just because she’s female we’re supposed to think she’s a poor wickly victim are we? Pah!
    The law needs to learn some gender equalitya nd to start treating women like grown-ups and thus dole out the same sentences to female criminals as male ones.
    Pryce should have got a longer sentence than her husband anyway. At least he told the truth when he was rumbled.

    • John Airey

      I think you’ll find that her husband denied it until it went to the final hearing – now had he admitted to it when entering his first plea he would have had a shorter sentence than Mrs Pryce.

  • Latimer Alder

    So journalists are slimy smug lying untrustworthy bastards.

    But this is hardly new news..

  • FF42

    Let’s leave aside Isabel Oakeshott’s sanctimonious twaddle in the Sunday Times article. She is operating at the dung beetle end of journalism, but even dung beetles have their uses.

    I am not sure I agree with Nick Cohen that the Sunday Times and Ms Cohen are obliged to go to prison to protect Vicky Pryce against a criminal charge under all circumstances. But they should not have put Ms Pryce and themselves into a false position of committing to a protection they very likely could not provide. If necessary they should have walked away from the story. There is an ethical issue here.

  • splotchy

    Agree that Oakeshott reveals herself to be unprincipled and shallow; I regret that part of my license fee which paid for her to smile and simper about the subject on Neill’s sunday politics, while I noted her answers to his questions were not borne out by the wheedling ‘love isabel’ emails where she colluded with Pryce. Her faux-sympathy for the ‘broken’ Pryce is hardly credible given how she knowingly exploited her and falsely reassured her.

  • Richard Campbell

    the moral of the story…….. never tell Oakeshot or the Sunday Times anything

  • Dopeyjim

    The Sunday Times didn’t reveal the source, another paper did. As a consequence a court order forced the ST to reveal its correspondence -AFTER THE SOURCE WAS KNOWN! And at all times Oakeshott made it clear that there could be consequences for Pryce for her vindictive, manipulative course of action.

  • Mirco

    Looks like loyalty and honour is a thing of the past. Seems like journalism is following the same downward spiral as the legal profession.

  • JonFrum

    The blanket use of the term ‘source’ ignores the details of this case. This was not a low-level bureaucrat whistle-blower, revealing the nefarious practices of politicians. This was a petty, vindictive wife stabbing her husband in the back. The only possible resulting loss would be that in the future, scabs like Pryce won’t use the media to crucify their cheating husbands. There is no great principle involved. No doubt, this fact was taken into consideration by the Sunday Times before they went to battle to save Pryce from what she so certainly deserved.

    • John Keane

      Well said. Do you protect a source that is economical with the truth? Was the ST’s decision based upon their real doubts? Do you blindly carry on protecting even if you know they are lying and are hiding behind source protection? If that is the case then reading the judgement then the ST were right. If this was about justice Pryce would have gone to the Police not the press.PS I’m just Joe Public not media/law before you shoot me down :)

    • flangini

      You are right in this case, but you do realise that the curse of a 1,000 harpies will descend upon you with great vengeance.

  • Peter Jordan

    In exposing Huhne, and jailing her source, Oakeshott exposed herself for the venomous slithering slimey snake she is. Andrew Neil hangs onto Oakeshot as no self-trespecting journo will join his programmes.

  • Algernon Chalmers

    How apt Janet Malcolm’s words in the classic The Journalist & The Murderer are: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible….He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living…”

  • Jambo25

    Huhne should have got 18 months, Pryce a suspended sentence and Oakeshoot the sack.

    • The Ayatollah Buggeri

      What is your rationale for believing that Pryce’s was a less serious offence? If anything she should have got the longer sentence. Both were equally culpable in the original crime (the speeding points scam), but Pryce then compounded that by trying to initiate and then manipulate a legal process, with the aim of bringing Huhne down while at the same time evading justice herself.

  • e2toe4

    I think this is just a bad case upon which to try and make general points about protecting sources in ‘whistle blowing cases’.

    It’s more like a sad-mag buy up, than a high minded, Watergate style, speaking truth to power investigative piece.

    At the end of the day things like humbling Huhne for lying, or seeing a woman seemingly demented by a desire for revenge taking her family apart to achieve it– take 2nd place to not letting people who should (and did ) know better, treat telling the truth in court like an optional tick box choice in a lifestyle questionnaire.

  • Matthew Smith

    Surely the whole point of the story was that Huhne got his wife to take speeding points for him. The story would not have been complete without the detail of whether Pryce agreed or didn’t, and if she did, she was committing a criminal offence. Pryce approached them with that story because she wanted to destroy Huhne’s career in revenge for cheating on her; she did not consider whether it would expose her as a criminal or not. She has nobody to blame but herself for her present situation.

    • embrewer

      No. read the whole story and not the bits you want to.

  • Robert Latchford

    At a news conference a journalist said to a politician: “Your assistant
    said publicly that you have a small penis. Would you please comment on

    The politician replied: “My assistant has a big mouth!”

  • David Allen Green

    The Sunday Times would have been obliged to comply with a court order, just as the Guardian was with Sarah Tisdall.

    But not even to appeal the order is significant and concerning. The decision not to appeal would not have been Oakeshott’s though: it surely would have been decision of someone more senior.

    • Jonathan Sebire

      her defence seems to be “we’re not lawyers” regarding ST senior staff. Notion national paper doesn’t retain legion council is farce.

  • nickpeters

    Thank you Nick for providing the evidence to substantiate my deep misgivings about Miss Oakeshott’s role in all this. She has always appeared rather shifty. BTW, is she by any chance related to Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott? I think we should be told. (Oops. Done research – she’s a 3rd cousin.)

  • SlmonSaysNo

    Vicky, a Kate Moss with glasses. Hope she’s treated well inside.

  • Chris Bamford

    Oakeshott’s double crossing of Pryce seems to be wholly aligned with an incredibly satisfying result. That a spiteful vindictive old bag will now pay the same price as her intended victim.

  • MBoy

    Good post. I found the interview with the slimy Oakeshott with Andrew Neil on BBC to be cringeworthy.

    • telemachus associates

      Be careful

      This is part of a Guardian Anti-Murdoch agenda

      “If you think that their colleagues will now treat Witherow and Oakeshott as pariahs, you do not understand what is going on in journalism. They are mere amateurs when set alongside their employer. To save his leathery hide, Rupert Murdoch responded to the hacking scandal by ordering a team of managers to go through every confidential email and expenses claim in News International and hand compromising evidence to the police.”

  • Meg Howarth

    Bravo! Well-said indeed. I noticed the risible Oakeshott’s pose for the camera last week at the beginning of Pryce’s retrial.

  • CreamOnTop

    The Times is a mere comic supporting what the UK Govt of the time does slavishly except when Rupe has something different to say.

    They have given up at least 3 sources recently. Only a fool would talk to them.

  • Adele Bailey

    Sleep well Isabel.

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