'Pressure to name sources will silence whistleblowers'

Thomson is refusing to identify his four Army sources to the inquiry

Journalists have warned that attempts by the Bloody Sunday inquiry to make them name their sources will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism by stopping whistleblowers coming forward.

Channel 4 News reporter and presenter Alex Thomson said that investigations of the kind that led to the reopening of the Chinook inquiry and Lord Saville’s probe into Bloody Sunday would "never see the light of day" if journalists could not guarantee the confidentiality of their sources.

Thomson, who along with former colleague Lena Ferguson was found in contempt by Lord Saville for refusing to identify their four Army sources to the inquiry, said "there was no element of doubt" that he was prepared to go to jail to fight for the principle.

"It took seven years investigating the Chinook helicopter crash before the House of Lords overturned the verdict and while some people are prepared to go public, there are some that have to remain anonymous," said Thomson.

No date has been set for the contempt hearings at the Northern Irish High Court, but ITN – which produces Channel 4 News – has said it will appeal against the decision.

Appearing at the preliminary hearings for ITN last week, Andrew Caldecott QC spoke of the "chill factor" that would stop whistleblowers coming forward if trust in assurances of confidentiality was broken.

Thomson and producer Ferguson won a Royal Television Society award for their 1997 reports that helped bring about a re-examination of the events of 30 January, 1972, when 13 people were shot dead by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Northern Ireland.

Thomson said it would be an "incredible irony" if after an inquiry costing several million pounds, two journalists ended up being sent to jail.

"I think if I had a choice between that and paying a fine I would rather go to prison," said Thomson. "Hopefully, it might even embarrass the Government into changing the law. You either have a law that protects a journalist’s sources or you don’t."

Ferguson, who is now the BBC’s editor of local programmes in Northern Ireland, worked for over a year researching the reports, which were broadcast on Channel 4 News.

"I’ve been asked if I thought of destroying my notebooks and to be honest I didn’t think of it. But that’s not the point. I think it should be respected that I kept my notebooks and I also think we should respect those very courageous people who were prepared to stick their head above the parapet.

"Both Alex and I support the inquiry and dearly wish the soldiers would come forward, but I am absolutely determined on this one. Journalists in Ireland know how difficult it is to get people in the security forces to speak and that people have been killed because of the things they have said. They know the necessity of being cautious."

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By Julie Tomlin

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