Every Sun reporter lives for a Page 1 by-line. But Nick Parker’s name on the Alps Suicide Plane story has an especially bittersweet taste.

Nick was arrested three years ago in the hacking scandal frenzy. A tout came into The Sun news desk with Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh’s mobile phone. It turned out to have been stolen.

The reporter did the obvious, doubtless operating under instruction. He checked the messages, saw nothing in the story, and dumped it.

Just before Christmas, he was cleared at the Old Bailey of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office but convicted of handling Ms McDonagh’s stolen phone and given a suspended jail sentence.

A charge that should never have been pressed. The whole pursuit of Sun reporters has been a complete shambles as yet more of The Sun editorial heavyweights have been cleared of trumped up accusations.

I hired Nick Parker when I was Scottish Editor of the Sun. He was probably the most gifted natural story-getter I have seen. Send him anywhere, anytime, he would always deliver. Utterly ruthless, probably not entirely moral, great reporter.

My Editor Kelvin McKenzie watched the by-line, asked me if Nick was ready for London. I told him given time and my gentle guidance he would turn into the real thing. That was the Wednesday. Monday morning he started in Wapping.

Nick Parker is no saint. I don’t remember us hiring any angels either.

So, a reader phones the news desk one Thursday morning. He has found what is clearly an SAS man’s terrorist handbook from Northern Ireland. Every IRA/UVF suspect, complete details, pictures. Intelligence notes, background reports, observations and covert movements. One thick volume of dynamite, found dropped in the street. I am a Regional Editor of the Sun, my news editor brings me the book.

We go through it in detail, it’s the Splash across all editions. I get a call from the Sunday Times deputy editor, one of our sister papers, asking if it’s true. Sharp intake of breath at the magnitude of what we’ve got. In every sense, we handle this information at face value with no regard for its source. Our only thought is the authenticity, size of the story and the impact – and what to do with the book.

I have arranged that rarest of things on The Sun – a pissy lunch with two cops. One is the Head of the Murder Squad, the other Number 3 in the Serious Crime Squad. Connections made over 20 years of football, betting and boozing. And stories.

Lunch is cut to one drink as they scan the SAS book and hightail it back to headquarters. An MI5 man I know calls seeking assurance that we hadn’t photocopied it. Of course we hadn’t. But the balloon was well and truly airborne. They bugged my home phone for the next three months. Just to be sure.  I know that from a contact whose covert department bugged the major drug dealers and topline criminals.  That was OK, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t.

What would Nick Parker do today if he got the same call? What would Steve Sampson journalist do? Take the reader’s story at face value, that he found an SAS man’s book on the street, crammed with terrorists? Not for one moment did we pause then to consider that he might have been a car thief, smashed a window, and got awfully lucky. Asked for us for a few grand.

Amazingly, our ordinary reader was just that. A stand-up member of the public whose first thought was to phone our news desk. Not to go to the police or his MP. He went to the place he trusted to get it sorted – The Sun. He never asked for as much as his petrol money.

Would the reader do that now? Would the Sun take his phone call? Newspapers have always operated at the margins. It’s what sets them apart, even without regard to the law on occasions. It has always been a question of editorial judgement.

I’ll concede the point that in recent times that responsibility has been treated at best in a cavalier fashion. But who do you trust to stand up to the crooks, bullies and politicians on the make.

The definition of a democracy has always been an established free Press. I’m uncomfortable if that freedom of the Press means raking round the lives of someone like Hugh Grant. But I would hate to think that those freedoms would be lost because of him.

Nick Parker is innocent, OK?

Steve Sampson – Media ■ Innovator ■ Journalist ■ Broadcaster ■ Venturist ■ Founder and CEO Various Digital Companies

About Steve Sampson

Steve Sampson has held senior positions in media principally with Mirror Group and Murdoch newspapers. He also founded First Press Publishing which was acquired by Trinity Mirror in 2000 where he served as a Director on various TM companies. He heads up a portfolio of digital assets in online and mobile with connections in the UK and US which include a global launch this year. He was one of two founder Vice Chairmen of Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie's cancer charity at the inception but now takes no active part.
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