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Murrer case: It all goes back to the source

28 November 2008

Sally Murrer's victory is a stunning success for the NUJ's stand for the right of all journalists to protect their confidential sources.

She is only the latest in a series of members that the union has supported through the courts over the last 50 years – and, in all but a couple, the member and the union have won.

The union holds in especially high regard those members who run legal and personal risks to defend their sources.

And although confidentiality was not an issue in the evidence in the Sally Murrer case, it was the legal principles established by the NUJ over the years that the judge followed in stopping the trial.

It was an NUJ-backed case that fixed the journalists' "right to silence" in European law. In 1996, Bill Goodwin, a young reporter on a business magazine, The Engineer, won a case against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Bill Goowin was a 23-year-old reporter who in 1989 received a leak of a damaging financial report on a computer software company. He phoned the company for comment and the response was an injunction preventing publication of the story and an order to disclose the identity of the source – which he steadfastly refused to do.

The case went on for seven years. Bill Goodwin lost in all the English courts – and was fined a modest £5,000 – but won triumphantly in Europe. Since then, the Goodwin case has been referred to in all cases involving journalists' sources – and judges have generally upheld the principle.

Other notable cases have included:

  • Robin Ackroyd, a freelance who refused, throughout another seven-year legal battle, to say who gave him information on the treatment of Moors Murderer Ian Brady in Ashworth high security hospital;
  • Ed Moloney of the Irish Times who stayed silent as the state tried to get him to hand over notes of an interview with a loyalist paramilitary accused of murder;
  • Martin Bright of the Observer, now on the New Statesman, who defied a threat of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act to keep a secret over a spy trial story.

It was over a sensational spy trial that the last UK journalists ever to be sentenced to prison for their work were jailed in 1963. Reginald Foster of the now-defunkt Daily Sketch and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail were known as the "silent reporters" because of their refusal to identify people who had given them information about an Admiralty clerk accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

The reporters were jailed for three and six months respectively, but, since then, the NUJ has steadfastly and successfully stood by members who themselves stand by the principle of protecting sources.

Tags: , protection of sources, courts, sally murrer, bill goodwin, robin ackroyd, ed moloney, martin bright, daily mail, observer, new statesman, daily sketch, irish times, freelance, engineer, magazines, newspapers