Former prison guard from Bury jailed for selling George Michael stories

George Michael. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire ANL-150921-143605001
George Michael. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire ANL-150921-143605001
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A former prison guard who sold a string of stories to a tabloid about George Michael’s time in a Suffolk prison has been jailed for 12 months.

Amanda Watts, 43, of Bury St Edmunds, leaked stories to The Sun about the former Wham star at HMP Highpoint in Stradishall in autumn 2010.

HMP Highpoint Prison, off the A143 near Stradishall. ENGANL00120120808123823

HMP Highpoint Prison, off the A143 near Stradishall. ENGANL00120120808123823

She sold a tale about Mr Michael, who was serving eight weeks for crashing his car while high on drugs, receiving a handwritten letter from Sir Paul McCartney.

Sun reporters enthused that Watts was ‘up for’ providing inside information, including on a visit from the singer’s boyfriend, his treatment behind bars, and the date of his release from prison.

Watts even drew a sketch showing the location of Mr Michael’s cell, the distance from the perimeter fence and a tree that was nearby to help the newspaper, the Old Bailey heard.

A Sun photographer was arrested in the tree near to the prison on the same day Watts passed on the sketch.

The breach of Mr Michael’s privacy and the prison security is as gross as it is blindingly obvious

Judge John Bevan QC

Watts also considered selling on pictures taken behind bars during Mr Michael’s prison sentence, the court heard.

She was paid £2,150 by News International for the stories between September 24 and November 25, 2010, and also offered the newspaper a story on an armed incident at the prison in January 2012.

She is the latest public official to be snared by Operation Elveden, the Met Police investigation into press payments to public officials.

Watts admitted one charge of misconduct in a public office.

Judge John Bevan QC today rejected a plea to spare her an immediate custodial sentence, saying she had set a ‘bad example’ when breaching her professional code.

He said: “George Michael seems to be famous for being a fallen idol, he was only due to serve about three week at Highpoint prison and the governor issued a warning reminding staff what they already knew about the duty of confidentiality.

“It is not without significance that at 3pm, your husband who was also employed at Highpoint emailed that direction to the account he shared with you about George Michael’s impending arrival.

“But by then you had already been in contact with News International at 11.20am.”

The judge said Watts was guilty of a ‘gross breach of trust’ and two of the stories aggravated her behaviour because of the serious implications for the prison.

“One of the stories published detailed a private visit by a friend, you having told the newspaper in advance that you would be sitting in on the meeting and you were ‘up for’ providing details.

“It is tittle tattle and of no public interest other than to a particular sector of the press, and it duly appeared in The Sun.

“Prisoners have rights and are entitled to private supervised visits.”

He said the selling of the sketch to The Sun would be ‘laughable if it wasn’t so serious’.

“You sent a sketch of the prison, the perimeter fence and an arrow pointing to Mr Michael’s cell, and the same day a photographer up a tree was arrested,” he said.

“The breach of Mr Michael’s privacy and the prison security is as gross as it is blindingly obvious.”

Mr Michael was jailed for eight weeks in 2010 after he crashed his car into a branch of Snappy Snaps while high on cannabis.

When it was revealed internally that he was being switched from Pentonville Prison to Highpoint, Watts was ‘quick off the block’ contacting The Sun reporter Vicky Thomas, said prosecutor Jacob Hallam.

On the same day he was moved, Watts called the paper, and an internal email from Ms Thomas to chief reporter John Kay gave her details and said: “Tipster below is a prison guard at Highpoint, she says George Michael is due to arrive at Highpoint at 1.30pm today.”

“Plainly the defendant had learned that George Michael was arriving and was quick off the block to get in touch with News International to pass that information on,” said Mr Hallam.

The email said Michael was due to be put in a ‘fluffy unit’ and a story that next day under John Kay’s byline revealed his switch to a ‘cushy’ prison.

Watts was paid £250 for the tip with her bank details put into the Sun payment system on the same day by Ms Thomas.

A second story, on September 25, 2010, was headlined ‘George’s jitters for late lover’ and detailed a prison visit from the singer’s then boyfriend Kenny Goss.

Reporter Andy Crick was passed Watts as a contact, and was told: “We got her talking and she gave use lots of good stuff.

“She is sitting in on the meeting in a private visiting room and is up for giving us details via phone or a face to face meeting.”

Mr Crick was also told that Watts’ husband was ‘annoyed about her talking to us’, the court heard.

A third story on September 27 was about Michael’s plans for a ‘freedom party’ after his release and again complained the singer was being held at a ‘cushy jail’.

Watts then drafted an email to Ms Thomas complaining that she had not been paid for her information.

“I feel so let down by The Sun!!!” she wrote.

“Despite being told by Brandon, Harry and Andy that I would be taken care of, I’ve not been given any form of payment.

“I feel I’ve been sold down the road with no recompense.”

She then said she had ‘a lot more information’ and suggested she may have pictures she was considering giving to the paper.

“It’s plain that email was a complaint by the defendant about not yet receiving payment, and she was in possession of a picture she was intending to pass to them about which she was having second thoughts,” said Mr Hallam.

“It would plainly have been inappropriate to take unauthorised pictures in prison.”

He said Watts started to be paid for her efforts, and a fourth story appeared on October 1 when Michael received the handwritten letter from Sir Paul McCartney.

“Just after 6pm on the evening of October 9, the duty governor reported to the Ministry of Justice that police were called to Highpoint because a photographer had been found up a tree near the unit housing George Michael,” said Mr Hallam.

“That same evening, an email was sent by the defendant from her personal email account to Andy Crick and attached was an image of a hand drawn sketch.

“As well as the image, seven picture message texts were sent.”

The final story was about Michael’s release on October 12, but Watts send Mr Crick a message on January 25, 2012, saying: “Want some extra news about armed incident at Highpoint. Amanda btw x.”

The reporter replied: “hiya, yeah definitely, what can you tell us?”

Watts then asked if she could call him instead of texting.

Watts was arrested with her husband on February 27, 2015, and quizzed about the payment made to a bank account they shared. Her husband was released without charge.

She was freed on bail and arranged to meet a colleague, telling her that The Sun reporter had approached her in a car park two days before George Michael was switched to the prison.

“The defendant told a story that was palpably untrue,” said Mr Hallam.

“She was trying to minimise her active role in her own downfall.”

Stephen Dyble, in mitigation, said Watts had a ‘fragile mental state’ and suffered from lupus which was exacerbated by stress.

He said she had quit the prison to become a dental nurse after feeling let down by the prison handling of an attack on her.

“She fully accepts she had breached a trust put in her not only by her employers but also the general public,” he said.

“She also realises she breached a duty of confidentiality she owed Mr Michael, and although he had temporarily fallen from grace he was still entitled to have his privacy respected.”

He said she knew the ‘inevitable knock on the door’ would come from Elveden detectives and she had been waiting to be caught since 2012.

Watts, of Bury, pleaded guilty at her first court appearance, having said no comment in police interviews.

She was ordered to pay back £2,399 that she benefitted from the crime, and would face 45 days in prison if she failed to pay within six months.

She also has to pay £800 in prosecution costs.