Now that DCI April Casburn case has been concluded (pending sentencing) it is legally safe to address the issue of whether News Corp was right to hand over the information which secured her conviction for misconduct in a public office.
She is one of a number of Sun and News of the World sources to face criminal charges as a result of information handed over by News Corp. The company has always said that ‘legitimate’ journalistic sources have been protected. But aren’t all journalistic sources entitled to some protection?
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While other accused individuals are public employees who are said to have been paid for information, Casburn received no money from the News of the World – though a jury found her guilty of corruption, suggesting they may have thought money was her motivation.
People who tip-off journalists about stories are often prompted by impure motives including (but not limited to): revenge, malice, greed and personal advancement.
That means that journalists should treat their information with extreme caution. But it doesn’t mean we should forget our sacred duty to protect our sources at all costs.
We now know that Casburn, 53, phoned up the News of the World newsdesk on 11 September 2010 and provided an anonymous tip-off.
She was convicted on the basis of an email written by former News of the World journalist Tim Wood to un-named colleagues, which said the following (I’m quoting from Guardian crime writer Sandra Laville’s report):
PHONE TAPPING. A senior policewoman … who claims to be working on the phone-tapping investigation wants to sell inside info on the police inquiry. She says the investigation was launched yesterday (Fri) by Yates and he is using ‘counter-terrorist assets’, which is highly unusual. An intelligence development team is being used and they are looking at six people. Coulson, Hoare and a woman she cannot remember the name of. The three other people used to work for the News of the World and police do not know where they are now (she did not know their names either). Pressure to conduct the inquiry is coming from Lord Prescott.
It has been reported that this was part of a tranche of 300m emails handed over to police by News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee.
But my understanding is that's not quite right. I am told that the MSC reacts to specific requests for data – i.e. involving certain search terms or certain individuals – and decides what to hand over on a case by case basis.
My understanding is that the MSC did not hand over this email – although that is certainly the belief of former News of the World journalists. But someone at News Corp took the decision to release an email which in all likelihood will result in a source being sent to prison.
Casburn was highlighting concerns that “counter-terrorism assets” were being used to investigate what she called “phone tapping”. We now know that she was talking at the start of an inquiry that snowballed into the biggest police investigation in UK history, costing £40m, targeted not at murderers, rapists or child molesters – but at journalists guilty of invading peoples’ privacy.
The rights and wrongs of whether this was and is an appropriate use of "counter-terrorism assets" is surely a matter of legitimate public debate.
So far I've been unable to find out the exact procedure by which the email was handed over. But as far as I can tell, at the least News Corp put up no resistance to handing it over and at the worst they proactively volunteered the information to police.
In my view efforts should have been made to protect Casburn as a journalistic source whatever the questions about her motives.