Just Bloody mindedness

If journalists do not protect their sources, they might just as well shut up shop and become propaganda sheets for government or official bodies.

Those words were spoken with some feeling last week by The Daily Telegraph’s former Ireland correspondent Toby Harnden. He had just heard the Saville tribunal into the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings had at last – it has taken four years – dropped contempt of court proceedings against him for refusing to name two British soldiers he interviewed about their part in that day of carnage..

Harnden destroyed his notes and tapes of the interviews with soldiers X and Y and consistently refused to identify them from 1999 when he was the first of more than 900 witnesses to the tribunal. Faced with jail if criminal contempt charges launched in 2002 stuck, Harnden still kept his silence.

“I don’t think a journalist can play it any other way,” he told Press Gazette from Israel where he is working as the Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent.

“I don’t think it takes courage or any special qualities to refuse to name a confidential source . I believe that anyone in our profession would do the same thing. If you break your confidential sources, then you simply can’t operate as a journalist.

“It is very important that even though some of us have been pursued – I think very unfairly by Lord Saville – that this does not discourage people from interviewing confidential sources about controversial subjects or from protecting their identities when official bodies of any sort demand we reveal them,” said Harnden.

The High Court in Belfast heard on Wednesday of last week that Lord Saville had discontinued the case against Harnden and undertaken not to re-open it. His tribunal must now bear the cost of two contempt hearings. Harnden’s costs, which The Daily Telegraph was prepared to pay, have reached £110,000.

Harnden, last of the journalists harassed by the tribunal to be exonerated, is both pleased and relieved.

“I’m glad we have been so completely vindicated after all this time, but still feel very disappointed with the way Lord Saville and the tribunal has dealt with me and pursued me and other journalists for so long and at such vast expense to the taxpayer,” he said.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders, in a sense, since you never know how a legal case will turn out. But I never had any doubts that if there had been a full trial on the contempt issue Lord Saville Daily Telegraph editor Martin Newland (far left) was just as firm on upholding a journalist’s right to keep his sources secret.

“When the lives of a reporter’s sources are endangered, there is not only a journalistic duty but also a moral duty to protect their anonymity to the last letter,” he said. “The case against Toby Harnden (left) was ill-conceived and has been a waste of public money. It should have been abandoned long ago.”

would have been laughed out of court.

“He could never have secured a conviction, and I think one of the reasons why he eventually dropped the case out of court is that bringing all the matters to a full hearing would only have embarrassed him.”

The most difficult moments in the whole Saville saga came for Harnden in 1999 at the very first tribunal hearing he attended in Derry.

Harnden was questioned by six lawyers and had never experienced such thinly-concealed hostility, he said.

He was questioned for more than an hour by the counsel for the inquiry, effectively the prosecution, and three lawyers acting for the families of those killed. Lord Saville and a Canadian lawyer sitting with him also questioned him.

“They were all extremely hostile to my interests. It was an extremely intimidating atmosphere,” he said.

“Lord Saville made it clear, it seemed to me, that he held an extremely personal grudge against The Daily Telegraph. He seemed determined to make an example of me throughout these proceedings.”

He was the only witness accused of contempt: “But it was Lord Saville who was being contemptuous of journalists, of the way we operate and need to protect our sources,” said Harnden.

“There was an insinuation throughout that I was acting because somehow I had sympathy with the soldiers who were my sources and wanted to help them undermine the tribunal, which was completely false.”

Journalists have to protect sources of all shades, said Harnden, and he had protected members of the IRA, Loyalist terrorists, soldiers and policemen while covering Northern Ireland, and it would have been impossible for him to agree with all their views.

“But that didn’t suit. It’s a mystery to me why Lord Saville only ever applied for one person to be held in contempt of this tribunal. There were lots of other journalists who made similar stands on protection of sources. Martin McGuinness and other former IRA members categorically refused to answer questions, wouldn’t name people or give information about what the IRA was doing that day. Lord Saville didn’t apply for any of these to be held in contempt. I find that bizarre.”

Soldiers X and Y eventually revealed their own part in Bloody Sunday so Saville had no need to pursue him, Harnden felt.

“Lord Saville had said in a tribunal ruling that there was no realistic chance of one of them being identified other than by me,” he said.

 

Daily Telegraph editor Martin Newland (far left) was just as firm on upholding a journalist’s right to keep his sources secret.

“When the lives of a reporter’s sources are endangered, there is not only a journalistic duty but also a moral duty to protect their anonymity to the last letter,” he said. “The case against Toby Harnden (left) was ill-conceived and has been a waste of public money. It should have been abandoned long ago.”

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