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Protecting journalist sources and materials

20 April 2012

For democracy to function, it needs to have a free press and journalists who are able to do their job without fear or hindrance. But this is becoming increasingly under threat from the corporate world of the Murdoch empire to the heavy hand of the state.

This was the message from Austin Mitchell, chair of an NUJ event, Defending Journalism: Protecting journalist source and material. The Great Grimsby MP and member of the NUJ Parliamentary Group said that Murdoch's decision to set up the Management and Standards Committee, which then handed over hundreds of emails from journalists to police, betraying their confidence to sources and putting whistleblowers' identities at risk, was a major attack on press freedom.

He said the increasing use of production orders by police, forcing journalists to hand over footage and journalist material, was turning reporters, against their will, into agents of the police and making them a target when they cover demonstrations.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"If you had to think of the one overriding responsibility of any journalist – a core principle enshrined in the NUJ's Code of Conduct – it would be the protection of sources. It's a vital aspect of a free press – that whistleblowers and sources need to be able to come forward and share information they believe the public should know about, in the certain knowledge that their identifies will be protected."

That is why, she said, the NUJ will be challenging News International. The union is waiting for assurances that it will not be handing over any more journalists' emails.

"If they do not offer satisfactory assurances that a similar investigation will not take place on the Times and Sunday Times we are prepared to seek a legal injunction."

News International journalists will now be able to seek protection from the NUJ, she said:

"We have set an NUJ chapel at News International – the first since the unions were derecognised and locked out in the Wapping dispute back in 1986."

The union has a long record of defending members from having to identify their sources. 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 landmark case against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights.

The NUJ has represented Jason Parkinson a member and video journalist together with BBC, ITN, BskyB and Hardcash Productions in seeking a judicial review of a court decision, forcing journalists, media organisations and broadcasters to hand over footage taken during the disturbances at Dale Farm, when travellers were evicted from their site by the council.

John Battle, head of compliance at ITN, the news organisation responsible for ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News, said it was very important that news organisations stood together to defend their staff against production orders. He said:

"The clue is in our name Independent Television News. Our basic principles are that as journalists we are independent, we report accurately and we are impartial. Independence is crucial if we are to have any credibility. We are not on the side of protesters, we are not on the side of the police.
"We will hand on footage that has been in the public domain, but we do not disclose material that has not been broadcast. At Dale Farm we had reporters inside and outside the camp. When they spoke to the travellers it was to put together a TV report, not to be evidence gatherers for the police."

John Battle said that news and broadcasting organisations should share information when their reporters or camera operators have been put under jeopardy while covering events. This information could be used to compile a central database to provide evidence to judges who seem sceptical that production orders are putting journalists' safety at risk.

Gavin Millar QC has a long record of protecting journalists and freedom of speech during his distinguished career. In November 2008, he represented the journalist, Sally Murrer, whose conversations with an alleged police source had been bugged by Thames Valley Police. The judge directed an acquittal on the basis of interferences with her right to freedom of expression.

He said that police were increasingly using production orders as fishing expeditions. He speculated that they were being used more as police increasingly relied on CCTV pictures to secure convictions and saw journalist footage as a "cheap and quick" way to gather evidence. He said that, in times of heightened national security, police are emboldened to use production orders by using the excuse of prevention of terrorism.

He said that as great a threat to press freedom was the law of defamation which allows powerful and wealthy people to use an expensive legal system to gag the press. He also called for a strengthening in law of the defence of acting in the public interest for journalists.

Gavin Millar is a member of the board of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City University, which is setting up a support group for whistleblowers. He said:

"Journalist sources, if not protected, can go through hell."

Jason Parkinson, a freelance video and print journalist who specialises in covering political protest, conflict and uprisings, can sympathise. Since receiving an email on November 1, 2011 from Essex police saying they were serving an order to obtain all his footage from the first two days of the Dale Farm eviction, his life has been put on hold. He said:

"It has been very stressful and my work as a freelance has suffered. But I didn't come into journalism to be an agent of the police. The union's code of conduct lists the protection of sources and all journalistic material as a fundamental part of journalist ethics and in turn a fundamental part of our democracy.
"The ability to report free from state interference and indeed report on the state and hold them to account is the corner stone of what makes our democracy."

He said that 38 minutes after the email from Essex police, he then received one from the force's press office asking if they could use his footage "for training purposes".

Tags: , press freedom, protection of sources, police, production order, news international, the times, sunday times, defamation, photographers, centre for investigative journalism, freelance, newspapers, broadcasting, itn, bbc, bskyb, hardcash productions, itv, channel 4 news, 5 news