Any journalist who has trained in the last 20 years will recall learning about the case of Bill Goodwin – the 23-year-old reporter on The Engineer who courageously risked jail rather than identify the source of a leaked company document.
He fought a seven-year legal battle and finally won a ruling at the European Court in 1996 which means all of us are better protected when it comes to defending the confidentiality of our sources.
The ruling stated that “the watchdog role of the press is vital to democratic society”.
If we sacrifice the principle that journalists’ sources are sacrosanct we might catch the odd allegedly corrupt cop (April Casburn) or gain information about a wife taking speeding points on behalf of her husband (Vicky Pryce). But we lose out on finding out about an unknown ocean of wrongdoing which future whistleblowers will never now bring to light for fear of exposure.
With so many police inquiries ongoing there is much that is still sub-judice.
But we can at least comment freely about the Casburn case – the Met detective chief inspector who was jailed for 15 months last month for trying to sell information about the hacking inquiry to the News of the World.
It has been reported that she was convicted on the basis of an email released by the News Corp Management and Standards Committee (MSC). This was the September 2010 account by reporter Tim Wood of a conversation with an anonymous informant who said she wanted to sell a story about intelligence assets being used to target journalists as a result of pressure from Lord Prescott.
I was led to believe that the MSC did not hand over the email – only for the Met Police to affirm that they did get it from them
Eventually, this week, I received this statement from News International in relation to the release of the Casburn email: “Members of News Corporation staff helped facilitate a search for evidence by the police. The police provided the search criteria.
“Subsequently the company started to engage in a pro-active search to protect the integrity of other titles and the company itself. It is that process which is the work of the Management and Standards Committee.”
The exact process by which the Casburn email was handed over to police remains unknown.
News International did not have a name for the anonymous tipster so it could be that the Met requested emails that mentioned keywords such as “police” or “phone-tapping” and were then able to identify Casburn from the email which described her as “a senior policewoman…who claims to working on the phone-tapping investigation”.
Now it may be that had News Corp sought to resist the release of the Casburn email they would have been compelled to hand it over anyway. But as far as I can tell this was never even seriously considered.
It is understandable that in the days after the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone was revealed - in July 2011 - News Corp took the decision to co-operate fully with all police enquiries. And the result has been an unprecedented internal corporate purge of alleged wrongdoers.
But I fear that in its eagerness to atone for former wrongdoing by behaving as ethically as possible, News Corp is in danger of undermining a journalistic principle which should override all others.
Heroes like Bill Goodwin paid a heavy price to secure legal protection of journalistic sources and we should not give that up lightly.