Chris Mullin protects his sources
THE FREELANCE journalist and former MP Chris Mullin told London Freelance Branch of his court win to protect his sources.
On 22 March Judge Mark Lucraft ruled that Chris does not have to hand over documents to West Midlands Police. As Chris explained to the February Branch meeting, the police wanted to identify sources for an investigation into the Birmingham pub bombings on 21 November 1974, which killed 21 people.
That investigation led to the release in 1991 of the "Birmingham six" who had by then spent nearly 17 years in prison after being - as Chris showed - unjustly convicted of the bombings. It also led to the winding-up of the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad - and around 30 further convictions were quashed as a result of that. It led to a Royal Commission inquiry that in turn led to the formation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission - and that has led to more than 500 convictions being quashed.
Chair Tim Gopsill noted that Chris has been a member of the NUJ for 53 years - and had been recommended for Life Membership of the NUJ at our March meeting. Members are entitled to Life Membership after 40 years of full membership.
For the win
As Chris reminded us, on 22 March West Midlands police lost their application at the Old Bailey under the Terrorism Act 2000 2000 - "the judge declined to grant them an order [intended] to reveal my sources in two stories. The police have a right of appeal, of course," he noted: but "somehow I don't think they will do that. They have already wasted quite a lot of taxpayers' money. I am advised that appeal judges are less likely to go along with police applications than are judges at the Old Bailey." West Midlands police have three months from 22 March to lodge any appeal.
"The tests that judges must apply before granting disclosure are weaker under the Terrorism Act" than under other legislation, Chis noted. But Judge Mark Lucraft nevertheless ruled: "I do not find an overriding public interest to displace the journalistic source protection right."
"I am extremely grateful," Chris said, "to the union for paying my costs to have very high-quality representation" in the case: "if it had not done that I might have been obliged to represent myself".
Delving into the records
Before the hearing he had pieces about the case published in the London Review of Books and in the Guardian. "Someone had sent me a bundle of papers from the National Archive - correspondence between a Home Office official and the then Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, Geoffrey Dear" at the time Chris' book Error of Judgment was published in 1986.
These papers showed that Dear was "strongly resisting any suggestion of wrongdoing by the Force and was implying that I was working with the Irish Republican Army. Indeed, he actually said that I was doing that in a press conference."
Chris "gave these papers to Sean O'Neill at the Times" - who contacted Dear, now a Lord, for comment. Somewhat to Chris's surprise, Dear "came out with his hands up - his response didn't quite reach the level of an apology but he said I had been right and he had been wrong."
Dear was far from alone in attacking Chris for his reporting. "Just before I retired from Parliament I was approached by one David Yelland in the House." Yelland was editor of the Sun from 1998 to 2003. "Are you Chris Mullin?" Yelland asked. "I read your book when it came out and I went straight to Kelvin and he told me to fuck off." Under Kelvin MacKenzie's was editorship of the Sun from 1981 to 1994, it relentlessly attacked Chris. He read to us a selection of headlines.
Collecting odious headlines
Does any reader have a copy of the story "Twenty things you don't know about Crackpot Chris" in the Sun? Chris observes that he didn't know some of these things either.
He was headlined as "Mr Odious" and a cross-head in a Sun leader article read "String him up". When the Birmingham six were released the paper opined that "a man who can't see where his duty lies is not fit to be an MP and we doubt many would miss Mr Mullin except the men who wear the balaclavas".
Chris showed us one headline that he has framed on the wall of his study: "Loony MP backs bomb gang".
And at the time of the release of the Birmingham six "there was a whispering campaign at all levels of the judiciary and the police," Chris recalled, spreading the lie that "we know they did it." "The Sun on two occasions and the Sunday Telegraph once put in print that thy were all really guilty - the Sun's second offence cost the paper over a million pounds." On that occasion the paper "tried to make sure the damning story appeared only in the UK and not in the Republic of Ireland - where quite a different appreciation of the case held sway. Unfortunately for them some copies meant for Northern Ireland were accidentally distributed in County Donegal" in the Republic..." so the six could sue in Dublin.
Chair Tim Gopsill asked how much Chris had been really worried: "death threats are serious things." Chris was not sure whether he had really had a direct death threat. He did have a lot more abuse - still gets quite a bit on Twitter: "some think I'm as bad as the men who placed the bombs..."
At the inquest into the deaths of the pub bombing victims in 2019 Chrs "had protection - and was rather mildly assaulted by several members of the same family" but when he read in the Daily Mail that he had received death threats directly he was somewhat surprised.
Paul Farelly is also a former Labour MP and member of the Branch. He congratulated Chris on successfully defending "a straightforward application" to reveal sources. But these are not the only way that the law is used against journalists. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation - "SLAPPs" - take many forms. Some use data protection law. He had "reached out to Charlotte Leslie, who was on the end of these. Her case was described in Parliament in January and the case against her has been dropped.
Matt Salusbury noted that he had set out some of the issues around SLAPPs in preparation for a possible Branch debate.
Member Mick Holder also congratulated Chris "on standing up for yourself and everyone else" and asked what thoughts he has about the motivation behind what happened to him: "Why, after all this time," was this application made?
Chris observed that "it is quite clear that West Midlands police have been conducting quite a thorough and professional investigation." It's very belated - "50 years since the bombing and 30 since the release of the six. That is because they came under pressure from a well-organised campaign. 'Justice for the 21' - to bring to justice the two culprits who remain alive."The Chief Constable "has had grief from that campaign - as have I. I think at the back of his mind was a desire to get them off his back and on to mine."
But "the material he was after nowhere contains the name that he was interested in."
Chris recalled that in his defence against the police application he produced "a witness statement from Charlie Faulkner. who was Lord Chancellor when the Terrorism Act went through the House of Lords," saying it should not be used against journalists. Jack Straw, who was Home Secretary at the time, wrote to the Times saying the same thing, and concluded "I have known Mr Mullin for 40 years. Wild horses, thumb screws and a lengthy spell in jail would not make him break a confidence."
"What my reporting did," Chris concluded, "was to enable me to look people - from the Lord Chief Justice down - in the eye and say 'you got the wrong people'."
Tim Gopsill had intended that we would also discuss "the great work you did in Vietnam and Myanmar and the work you did in Parliament, such as standing up to the Murdoch empire..." But we'd run out of time and would have to make do with that mention.
- 16 April 2022 The National Archive papers showed up before Chris's London Review of Books piece.