Jailing of policeman who offered Sun a story shows journalists cannot trust their employers to protect sources

It used to be the case that journalists would proudly  go to prison rather than give up a source.

Today (with three journalists in prison for phone-hacking and many more set to face trial) it seems that protection of sources has slipped down our list of priorities.

Yesterday, a former policeman who offered a story to The Sun in 2010 was jailed. There is no question that the policeman involved was acting corruptly by seeking £10,000 for a story making allegations about violent and promiscuous behaviour by a colleague.

But The Sun's parent company News Corp too has committed a grave crime against the first rule of journalism, by giving this man's details to the police.

It wasn't a journalist's fault, it appears the officer was shopped by News Corp's Management and Standards Committee. This is the group set up in the wake of the closure of the News of the World in 2011 to "drain the swamp" as one lawyer involved put it, to search the archives of News Corp's surviving newspaper titles to ensure any remaining suspected criminality in the company was rooted out.

News Corp and the MSC took a decision to fully co-operate with the police with the result that dozens of journalists, and many more sources, have been arrested.

Operation Elveden (the Met Police investigation into payments by journalists to public officials) has so far made 125 arrests and interviews under caution, 53 of whom were journalists.

Perhaps, under the circumstances, News Corp had little choice. Once lawyers have been engaged to go through internal emails with a fine-tooth comb perhaps they must hand over anything suspicious to the police lest they are accused of a cover-up.

The policeman jailed yesterday gave The Sun some fairly scurrilous stuff about alleged threesomes involving police officers and strip club visits. But he also alleged that a colleague had used excessive violence against members of the public.

He was rather naive to contact the paper via email. 

But former detective chief inspector April Casburn (pictured above) contacted the News of the World by phone and she fared no better, being jailed for 15 months in February 2013. She phoned the News of the World newsdesk number in 2010 alleging that counter-terrorism resources were being squandered on the hacking inquiry.

The jury in that case were convinced she had a financial motive (rather than being a whistle-blower).

But again, even if the source is corrupt, journalists have a duty to protect them and what she was revealing was clearly in the public interest. 

The huge disclosure of emails by News Corp's MSC should teach journalists some lessons:

  • You cannot trust your employer to have the same high regard for source protection as you do
     
  • Be extremely careful about what you commit to email when it comes to confidential sources
     
  • The safest bet is to encourage whistleblowers to contact you via a secure digital mailbox (like this one used by The Guardian and housed offshore).

And it is worth underlining that it will almost never be ok to pay a public sector employee for a story (there is no public interest defence under the Bribery Act).

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