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NUJ welcomes Belfast ruling on protection of sources

6 February 2019

The National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland (NUJ) has today welcomed the judgement in the Northern Ireland Crown Court which recognises the right of journalists to protect confidential journalistic sources and material.

Justice Colton rejected the application brought by Alex McCrory, one of the co-accused in an ongoing criminal trial involving Colin Duffy and Harry Fitzsimmons, against a
Sunday World investigative journalist and NUJ member Paula Mackin. 

Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley paid tribute to Paula Mackin and Northern Editor of the Sunday World Richard Sullivan for their strong stand in defence of media freedom.  He noted that Justice Colton, in setting out his reasons for rejecting an application to have the journalist hand over material and disclose information to the applicant had drawn heavily on the landmark Goodwin case, which the NUJ had successful taken to the European Court in defence of press freedom.

The application sought three things, firstly an order compelling the journalist to disclose source material; secondly an order compelling the disclosure of journalistic source(s) who provided journalistic information; and thirdly compelling that journalist to attend the criminal trial and give evidence about the former matters.
The Defendant’s application arose out of a series of criminal investigative reports published by the Sunday World.
The Court heard evidence from the investigative journalist and remarked that the journalist in reporting about certain events “was simply doing her best to recollect and communicate the gist” to her readers, and that the newspaper articles “related to a wide range of individuals who may be classed as dissidents”.  When asked under cross examination to disclose her sources she emphatically told the court that she was not prepared to disclose any sources.  In protecting her sources and source material she informed the court of the confidential nature of sources and of their source material and also of the risk to her life and also to her source’s life.  Justice Colton stated that Paula Mackin gave truthful evidence and he declined the Defendant’s application.
The Defendants in the criminal case also made an unsuccessful attempt to compel disclosure of confidential journalistic source(s) and source material in the High Court.

Séamus Dooley said:

“Paula and her editor stuck by the fundamental principles of the NUJ Code of Conduct. Coming in a week where members Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey have secured the right to a judicial review of police actions against them this is a good week for journalism in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that Mr Justice Colton was clear and unambiguous in upholding the honesty and integrity of Paula Mackin and accepted the veracity of her evidence. Journalists must be able to do their work without fear of compromising their professional standards”

IEC Cathaoirleach Gerry Carson had represented the NUJ at the hearing.

NI Editor for the Sunday World Richard Sullivan said:

“This is an important day for investigative journalists and a recognition by the court of protection of confidential journalistic sources and source material.
Investigative journalism is the hallmark of what the Sunday World does, in this judgement the court has upheld, recognised and preserved the right of a free press to responsibly and impartially report allegations of criminality and the important right of Sunday World readers to receive information about serious criminality and of the right of journalists working in Northern Ireland to investigate crime without fear.  Mr Justice Colton delivered a judgment that recognises the public’s right and the medias right to freedom of expression.  
But the judgment is more important than that, it protects confidential journalistic sources and the information they communicate in confidence and anonymously which helps us as the Sunday World to inform the public in Northern Ireland about serious criminal activity.
The Court did recall today that freedom of expression is a constitutional right in our democratic society and that protection of journalistic sources is a foundation of that right and protecting these fundamental rights enable the press to carry out their duties as public watchdog.
We are grateful for the support we received from the NUJ.”

Tags: , belfast, northern ireland, ethics, sources, courts, legal action, legal challenge, protection of sources