Sources in peril

PROTECTING whistleblowers is vital to investigative journalism; and investigative journalism is vital to anyone's definition of democracy. But, as a German legal theorist working for the European Commission noted to the Freelance: "Of course you have no corruption in the UK. Your Establishment makes up the rules as it goes along." And as good a definition of "the Establishment" as any is "all those forces that think they can govern without interference from pesky outsiders, and thus that they have a right to know who whistleblowers are".

Robin Ackroyd: pic © Stefano Cagnoni
Robin Ackroyd outside the High Court in London's Strand for his hearing on 18 October

London Freelance Branch invited two pesky outsiders to speak at its December meeting. In 1990, as a reporter on the Engineer, Bill Goodwin reported that a computer company's rosy picture of its finances was not all it seemed. He went all the way to the House of Lords to protect his source, and lost. So, with the support of the NUJ, he went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and in 1996 established a precedent for the 43 countries it covers that, yes, journalists can and should protect our sources.

Robin Ackroyd is just three years into repeating that long journey. As he says, the high-profile areas are defence, criminal cases and finance - but local papers are pressured to reveal the source of Town Hall documents too. "I've been a journalist for 17 years," he said: "I started on locals, then went to the Yorkshire Post as crime reporter, then to London as Home Affairs correspondent of the Express, then went freelance. At the Express and as a freelance I've investigated Ashworth high security hospital.

"This is an asylum or hospital with a miserable record of dealing with the press and the public. Inquiries have twice recommended it be closed." The first time was the 1999 Fallon Inquiry into a paedophile scandal - uncovered largely by Robin. "And that depends on confidential sources."

In December 1999 the Daily Mirror ran a report on how a patient, convicted murderer Ian Brady, was moved from one ward to another by what Ashworth management calls a "care and responsibility team". He is clearly a "client" who requires careful handling. "But in English what happened," Robin said, was that "a crew in full riot gear, two with riot shields, went into his room. He was strip-searched. He ended up with a fractured wrist."

It was after this that Brady went on hunger strike. He is now being force-fed: as Robin wrote in the Daily Mirror, the feeding tube has been inserted without anaesthetic and the feed poured down it straight from the fridge. "What worried me was that quite a senior manager stood behind Brady making gagging noises to mock him."

The hospital sued the Daily Mirror to reveal its source, particularly for "colour" quotes from a hospital administrative log. Robin stresses that these are not Brady's medical records., contrary to many legal and press reports.

In June 2002 the House of Lords ruled against the paper. Robin came out as the intermediary, and re-stated: "I do not betray my sources." In October a High Court judge ruled that Robin must reveal his source. There was no full hearing and Robin was not able to give evidence, because the judge ruled that his case bore a "striking similarity" to the Mirror case.

With the NUJ's support, Robin is seeking leave to appeal.

Bill Goodwin noted that "It's because of the NUJ backing my case that protection of sources is recognised as a pillar of free speech throughout Europe." And now, "By standing up and fighting Robin is sending a message to sources everywhere that they can trust journalists and report information to them in the public interest."

UK law needs to be changed. The "ridiculous" Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 says that journalists can protect sources - "unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice". The trouble is that this can mean anything that the court wants it to mean. It was a last-minute amendment to the Act, argued in terms of a journalist knowing the identity of a murderer.

Courts make a lot of wrong assumptions - in Bill's case that the source "must be a senior person and must be ticking time-bomb", and in Robin's that they must have been motivated by money.

And it's not just money that's important to journalists fighting to protect whistleblowers: "it's the moral support - faxes and calls are important just to keep going".

LFB committee member Ros Bayley thanked the speakers: ""We spout about principles but meeting journalists who are prepared to put their life on the line for the principle is humbling."

Freelance Organiser John Toner pointed out that the union "can only support a member who's prepared to say no in the first case". And the Freelance editor expected there'd be more cases, whatever happened to Robin's or to the Contempt of Court Act. Journalists were already being threatened with aiding and abetting sources in breaching their contracts of employment.

Last modified: 15 December 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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