The Daily Mirror publisher’s decision to hand over details of a journalist’s prison service source to police was at the centre of a bid yesterday to overturn an Operative Elveden conviction.
Prison officer Robert Norman, 54, of Swanscombe in Kent is one of 32 public officials who were convicted of misconduct in public office under the Met’s Operation Elveden after receiving payments from news organisations. Most were convicted as a result of information disclosed to the police by publishers News UK and Trinity Mirror.
Norman was jailed for 20 months after being convicted of misconduct in public office over 40 story tips given to the Daily Mirror and News of the World between 2006 and 2011. He was paid a total of £10,000 and served five months behind bars.
Norman initially made contact with the Daily Mirror in his capacity as a union rep at Belmarsh Prison. Stories he leaked included concerns about staff cuts, a plot to assassinate a governor and claims a Catholic chaplain was having affairs with inmates.
Barrister Keir Monteith, for Norman, told the three-judge panel, led by Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that the appeal hinged on the decision of Mirror Group Newspapers to “give up” details of the prison officer.
Publisher MGN (the national press division of Trinity Mirror) handed over Norman’s details voluntarily to the police without a court-granted production order.
It was argued that no newspaper can hand over sources, without taking steps set out in statute, without breaching Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights dealing with freedom of expression and information.
The judge in Norman’s original trial should have stayed the prosecution, it was argued, because the police did not go through the proper legal process when obtaining information about a confidential journalistic source from the Daily Mirror publisher.
Monteith said: “Was MGN’s legal advice correct relating to exhausting all other means in obtaining a production order? We respectfully say it was not. This case is unique and affects society.
“The more that the state is allowed to have the identity of sources the poorer we will be in a democratic society.
“The public would be very worried and scared if a source’s rights are taken away.”
A “memorandum of understanding” between MGN and the Met Police left it to the judgment of the company whether it was in the public interest to disclose journalistic material held in confidence, or not.
Monteith said: “The procedure violated the first and foremost safeguard of the protection of journalistic sources.
“If the police are allowed to get hold of sources through a friendship of convenience then that causes a chilling effect.
“Never before has there been a situation where a state has got together with the press to launch an arbitrary enquiry into the possibility of criminality without the consideration of sources.
“This is an example of a breach of Article 10 which goes way beyond the appellant.”
Monteith added: “This procedure violated the protection of journalistic sources. It was wrong for a private company to make that decision.
“A grave mistake occurred. Sources had to be protected as much as the journalist. The protection for sources was forgotten, or deliberately forgotten. That is the nub of the appeal.
“Material necessary to prosecute Mr Norman was obtained by impermissible means. It was an abuse of process to prosecute him at all.”
Julian Christopher QC, for the prosecution, countered: “The newspaper was free to supply the information to the police that it did provide in the same way if it was a murderer confessing to a recent murder.”
And he said that if the police had gone to court to request Norman’s details, they would have been granted it.
Former Mirror and News of the World journalist Stephen Moyes was Norman’s reporter contact and was himself charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office only for the prosecution against him to be dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.
He told Press Gazette last year (before Norman’s trial): “I am dismayed that Robert Norman – a man I knew to be a senior union rep for the Prison Officers Association, and a whistleblower – is still going to trial.
“From 2006 when he rang the Daily Mirror after exhausting negotiations with the prison Governor and local MPs, he was hell-bent on highlighting mismanagement, waste of taxpayers’ funds, threats to his members, and stories that were massively in the public interest.
“Without him a number of important security and safety exposés would have been hushed up – by the same negligent prison management who were responsible for them.
“His concerns – of sweeping staff cuts at Belmarsh when they were at full capacity, threatening the lives of warders, inmates, and the general public – were backed up by reports and statistics from the independent prison inspector and charities such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.
“I didn’t consider his union role to be any different from the full-time reps I spent so much time with in my years working on a Trinity Mirror weekly paper covering Heathrow – raising public awareness of workers’ rights and sticking one over management if necessary.”
Moyes said that all Norman’s stories were confirmed before publication by the Ministry of Justice press office.
He said: “There was never a complaint or question mark against them.”
Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd,sitting with Lord Justice Popplewell and Mr Justice Goss, reserved judgement in the case.
A successful appeal could pave the way for the other public officials convicted under Operation Eveden to overturn their convictions.