Protecting journalists' sources is a human right, High Court is told

By Roger Pearson

6Freelance
journalist Robin Ackroyd’s battle to protect his sources for a Mirror
story about Moors murderer Ian Brady began in the High Court this week.

The case will test whether the Human Rights Act can be used by
journalists to protect their sources. Gavin Millar, QC, for Ackroyd,
argues in a written submission that the disclosure of the information
by the sources was an act of expression within the Article 10 right to
“freedom of expression” in the European Convention on Human Rights,
which was “justified in the public interest”.

He claims Ackroyd’s
disclosure to the newspaper was an exercise of his right to freedom of
expression which was also justified in the public interest, and so
Ackroyd should be entitled to retain the right to keep his source
anonymous under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

Mersey Care NHS
Trust, which runs the top security Ashworth Hospital where Brady is
locked up, claims the need to protect medical records overrides the
right of expression.

The hospital is asking Mr Justice Tugendhat
to order Ackroyd to reveal his source for a story he wrote in the Daily
Mirror in December 1999, which quoted from confidential patient records
following the killer’s hunger strike.

Millar added: “The fact that journalists’

sources
can be reasonably confident that their identity will not be disclosed
makes a significant contribution to the ability of the press to perform
their role in society of making information available to the public.

“It
is for this reason that it is well established now that the courts will
normally protect journalists’ sources from identification.”

“Mr
Ackroyd wrote the article in good faith, believing that it tackled
issues of legitimate public interest and that he was not doing anything
wrong.”

He argued that the passage of time, now some six years
since the article was published, was another reason the order should
not now be made.

He said Ackroyd’s career as an investigative
journalist had already been damaged and that this would be compounded
if an order were made.

Vincent Nelson, QC, told the judge the Trust was no longer seeking compensation from Ackroyd, but considers him a “wrongdoer”.

Brady
has offered to give evidence in Ackroyd’s defence, claiming the Trust
uses the legal pretext of doctor-patient confidentiality to conceal
conditions at Ashworth.

The hearing continues.

Case history
NAME THAT SOURCE

The
Daily Mirror fought unsuccessfully all the way to the House of Lords to
avoid having to disclose its sources. But when it met with final
defeat, Ackroyd stepped forward to reveal he provided them with the
story for which he was paid £1,250. However, he refused to name his
sources.

In October 2002, the High Court ruled he had no arguable
defence and must reveal his source. However, in May the following year,
the Court of Appeal overturned that decision and said he should be
allowed to defend himself at trial.

The Appeal Court ruled it was
“a clear case of a journalist whose freedom of expression would be
inhibited if he were required to disclose the identity of his sources”.

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