Greater Manchester Police has issued disclosure orders to media outlets which could set a precedent that makes journalists ‘an arm of the state”.
The BBC, Sunday Times and Prospect magazine have all been asked to hand over notes of interviews with reformed British jihadist Hassan Butt – even though he is in police custody after being arrested last Friday.
- November 1, 2017
- October 13, 2017
- September 13, 2017
The action comes as freelance investigative journalist Shiv Malik, who interviewed Butt for a forthcoming book on Islamic extremism, Leaving al-Qaeda, takes his challenge against an identical order to a judicial review hearing in the High Court next Wednesday. The orders have been made under schedule five of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Representatives from the three news outlets will appear in court in Manchester to oppose the order.
They were notified on Friday, giving them three working days to respond. All three have carried interviews with or articles on Butt – some by Malik – and police have requested all source material, notes and broadcast footage relating to them.
American TV network CBS News has also been issued with an order – its 60 Minutes show interviewed Butt last year.
Butt, a former spokesman of Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, admits to training as many as 200 potential terrorists, but has since renounced extremism.
Malik’s landmark two-day judicial review case could set a precedent for journalists resisting police attempts to obtain notes and broadcast footage to help with investigations.
He told Press Gazette: ‘I think GMP’s actions are without any precedent. If it wins it has managed to convince the courts that journalists should act as an arm of the state.
‘It may come to the stage where journalists have no credibility and news organisations will stop reporters from working in this field – simple things like source confidentiality will be removed. They are giving out production orders like they are goody bags.”
Malik called on the UK media to act together to fight excessive and unnecessary use of terror legislation. ‘They normally compete with each other, but this is one of the occasions where they need to act as a consortium to protect journalistic freedom – it’s a critical moment,’he said.
David Goodhart, editor of Prospect which ran a lengthy interview with Butt in 2002, said: ‘We are all very uncomfortable about the principles relating to journalists and sources.
‘I think it’s inconceivable that there is anything we have [that could be useful to police] – we published it all.
‘Journalists have done some very important work in helping us understand radical Islam in Britain and that requires building up the confidence of contacts.
‘Why can’t the police do their own work? We have our own separate, but related, job of bringing information about this sad little corner of society to lightâ€¦but it’s thanks to people like Shiv Malik that we know so much. We mustn’t make their job any harder than it is.”
Goodhart said that police had not asked for a copy of the magazine or for the longer version of the interview by Aatish Taseer which is available to subscribers on its website.
David Banks, co-editor of MacNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, said: ‘The concern journalists will have is that it puts them in a difficult position – we can be seen as an information-gathering arm of the state.
‘If a very high bar is not set by the courts to allow such access to material, it is a concern. It’s not hard to imagine that investigative journalists are going to want to look into the activities of people accused of terrorism offences and if this legislation is used frequently it could put them in a position of potentially being seen as gathering evidence for future prosecution.”
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: ‘Malik’s case has huge implications for investigative journalism; something clearly seen in the level of support Shiv is winning from media figures and press freedom campaigners. The NUJ is calling on everyone who believes in quality journalism to get behind Shiv in this case.’
Journalistic material is exempted from police seizure under the Terrorism Act 2000. But under paragraph five, schedule five, police may apply to a judge to obtain it for the purposes of a terrorism investigation.
The NUJ is backing Malik’s fight and has funded the £80,000 cost of his legal team so far – but he is still personally in £5,000 of debt from funding his defence.
Friends and colleagues have rallied round to help and a fundraising night takes place in Camden this Thursday
A spokeswoman for GMP said: ‘This is part of an ongoing investigation and we are unable to provide further details.
‘However, as with all criminal investigations the police require assistance from people who may have relevant information.”