There was a time – when the internet was just a bunch of computers in a hippy paradise in the US – that when a decent copper or a conscientious public official thought the public should know about something dodgy going on, they would stick a document in brown envelope and send it to a trusted journalist.
Or they would meet in the bowels of a multi-storey carpark or exchange coded messages via public phones. Much sexier and more romantic than pressing the send button.
When my good friend and former crime reporter, Steve Panter, exposed the fact that Greater Manchester Police had identified a prime suspect for the 1996 IRA bombing in Manchester but had not attempted to arrest him, the information came via such a brown envelope.
Satisfied the information was genuine, Steve, backed by his paper, the Manchester Evening News published the story in 1999, naming the suspect and asking why there had been no arrest.
Greater Manchester Police responded by investigating with great vigour to determine who had leaked Steve the information. They arrested a senior officer – Det Ch Insp Gordon Mutch who was charged with misconduct in a public office. Steve was a witness in the trial and maintained Mutch was not the source. When facing a charge of contempt of court and asked to reveal the source he steadfastly defended one of the basic principles of journalism. It was a principle for which Steve was willing to go to prison and following a national campaign all charges against him were dropped.
The police went to great lengths to extract information from Steve, obtaining a court order to examine his telephone calls and credit card transactions. But the only evidence GMP could produce was an encounter in a hotel in Skipton, arranged to discuss a potential book about the Moors Murders. Mutch was cleared and the identity of Steve’s real source remained safe.
The protection of sources principle isn’t there to turn journalists into heroes or boost their egos. There is a fundamental public interest in journalists being able to protect sources – recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights – so that whistblowers can feel safe in exposing wrong-doing. Without these protections, public interest stories would dry up and there would be even more cover-ups.
Now, these fundamental principles are under threat, as police wield their powers like a big stick to sieze information and spy on journalists using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Had the Manchester bombing story appeared a decade later the outcome may have been very different. Under RIPA police don’t need to go to court to seize information from telecoms providers and smartphone data can reveal information which present challenges for journalists trying to protect the identity of sources.
The latest example of this is the “plebgate” affair in which a Sun journalist had his mobile phone records seized by the Metropolitan Police, without his knowledge, to out police officers who had leaked information about the exchange between police and government minister, Andrew Mitchell at the gates of Downing Street. No legal action was taken against the officers identified but as far as safeguarding whistleblowers is concerned, the damage has been done.
Apparently, the police have acted within their powers and have been condemned by the National Union of Journalists, Index on Censorship, Liberty and the Society of Editors.
Anyone who cares about media freedom should be campaigning to curb what is clearly an abuse of power. Meanwhile. maybe journalists should be thinking again about how to ensure sources remain confidential to maintain confidence in public interest journalism so whistleblowers can feel safe in approaching journalists with important stories to tell.
Going back to the old school, means an aversion to email, the internet, smartphones and computers. Once initial contact is made by the whistleblower, by phone email or text, it is probably safest for subsequent contact to be made via more archaic media ie. a meet-up, public telephone or using that good old brown envelope. There are also steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of detection in electronic communication, outlined recently in Guardian reporter James Ball in a presentation to Hacks/Hackers London.
Of course, no method of communication can be 100 per cent safe, but journalists need to be much more mindful today of the dangers to their sources if they are to defend that central principle of public interest journalism. Suffice to say Steve Panter’s source remains a secret.