'I've concluded that he's a responsible journalist whose purpose was to act in the public interest'

By Dominic Ponsford

Investigative journalist Robin Ackroyd has urged Merseyside NHS Trust to end its "vindictive"

six-year campaign to make him name a confidential source, after winning what he hopes was a decisive High Court victory.

If Tuesday’s High Court disclosure judgment had gone the other way, Ackroyd could have found himself behind bars for contempt of court by today (Friday).

However, Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled in Ackroyd’s favour, saying he was "a responsible journalist whose purpose was to act in the public interest".

Despite this week’s victory, Ackroyd’s ordeal is not yet over because lawyers for the hospital have sought leave to contest the judgment at the Appeal Court.

In evidence, Ackroyd said Merseyside NHS Trust’s pursuit of him "smacks of vindictiveness".

And this week he told Press Gazette: "I sincerely hope that in the coming days and weeks the hospital and the authorities reconsider the wisdom of pursuing this matter further.

"The time lapse has been one of the issues in this case and as time goes on I would have thought Ashworth Hospital has less and less chance of success."

The Ashworth sources battle began in December 1999 when the Daily Mirror published details of confidential medical records, which revealed how Ian Brady was on hunger strike and being force-fed.

The Moors murderer has been on hunger strike since October 1999, when he said he was mistreated and injured by six warders in riot gear who forcibly moved him to another ward.

The Daily Mirror refused Ashworth’s demand to disclose its source for the story, and fought the case all the way to the House of Lords, which ruled in Ashworth’s favour on 27 June, 2002. At that point Ackroyd came forward as the intermediary.

Ashworth then sought a summary judgment (without trial) to reveal the source, which Ackroyd successfully fought at the Court of Appeal in May 2003.

A six-day trial to decide whether or not he would have to disclose his source finally took place at the High Court last month.

If the decision had gone against him, Ackroyd would have been likely to face a two-day disclosure order for the source which — if he ignored — could have landed him in jail for Contempt of Court.

He said: "The way a society treats its prisoners, patients — indeed each and every citizen, including journalists — is a test of its maturity.

"Ian Brady, as odious as his crimes were, was mishandled and mistreated. This was and still is a matter of public interest, not least because it has led to the longest running hunger strike in British penal history.

"The authorities’ pursuit of me has been relentless and entirely unamusing. For more than six years this case has cast a shadow over my personal and professional life. It started when I was 32. I’m now almost 39."

He added: "My endeavour to protect confidential sources — and my refusal to name them — has always been a ‘constant’. I stood my ground, remained resilient and still stand firm."

Mr Justice Tugendhat said Ackroyd’s own evidence, which was not available in the original Mirror hearings, played a key role in making his decision.

Pointing to Ackroyd’s history of exposing mismanagement at Ashworth, he said: "His role has been that of the journalist and he has a history of acting responsibly."

Other key factors mentioned by the judge were the fact that the hospital no longer contended, as it had previously done, that Ackroyd’s source was motivated by money.

Tugendhat said the disclosure of Brady’s medical records itself was not in the public interest, but he said there was a public interest in ensuring that sources should not be deterred from communicating with Ackroyd. He also said the fact that Ackroyd’s mystery source probably "misguidedly"

thought they were acting in the public interest meant they were unlikely to make any further leaks.

A further contributing factor to Tugendhat’s decision was the fact that Brady himself has changed his mind since the early Mirror hearings and now supports the leak of his records.

Tugendhat went further in his judgment and said: "Ian Brady probably did encourage or authorise the leak."

The NUJ has backed Ackroyd since the Mirror lost its Lords appeal and costs for both sides are expected to run into hundreds of thousands. Costs were awarded in Ackroyd’s favour, but payment has been suspended pending the possible appeal.

Merseyside NHS Trust declined to tell Press Gazette how much public money it has spent fighting the Ackroyd case.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: "Robin has showed huge courage in standing true to this principle during six very difficult years. We all owe him an immense debt of gratitude — all journalists are in a stronger and safer position because of the brave stand he has taken."

Ackroyd had been freelance for just a few months when the Ashworth sources row erupted, and he previously worked on the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Yorkshire Post, Bradford Telegraph and Argus and the Dewsbury Reporter.

He is currently working on a travel/ adventure book based on a two-month expedition in Mongolia where he covered 800km on horseback investigating historic sites associated with Genghis Khan.

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