Right to protect sources boosted by Brady ruling

Ackroyd: “I do not disclose confidential sources of information”

Appeal Court judges have provided a major breakthrough for journalists seeking to protect their sources.

Lord Justice Ward said last week that a decision to cut short freelance journalist Robin Ackroyd’s bid to protect his sources “sends a chill of apprehension down my spine”.

While Lord Justice May stated: “Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom in a democratic society. An order for source disclosure cannot be compatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to freedom of expression – unless it is justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest.”

Consensus among the Appeal Court judges means Ackroyd will now get the chance to argue his case at a full trial. It is a milestone victory in the latest stage of his long-running battle to protect the sources from which he obtained confidential medical reports on Moors murderer Ian Brady.

Last October, the High Court ordered him to reveal to Mersey Care NHS Trust within two days who it was gave him the documents, which he had made available to the Daily Mirror. The High Court had granted “summary judgment” without a full hearing on the basis that Ackroyd did not have a defence to the claim.

In the Commons, MP Tom Watson raised concern over growing judicial pressure on journalists and newspapers to reveal their sources. “In an alarming number of cases, the courts are ordering journalists to betray confidential information given to them in the public interest,” he said.

The Appeal Court’s ruling means that the case, which has already run up £120,000 in legal costs, will have to go back to court and be fully fought if the NHS Trust persists in its action.

Lord Justice Ward said there was today “a palpable tension between the judiciary and elements of the press”, but added: “If that is right, then it is all the more important, not that judges should pander to perceived pressures from the press, but only that judges should be vigilant to protect the freedom of the press where it is legitimate to do so.”

Mersey Care had argued that Ackroyd’s defence to the claim merely repeated defences put forward unsuccessfully by the Mirror in earlier cases and was therefore doomed to failure.

Ackroyd claimed it was in the public interest that the reports on Brady should be disclosed.

Lord Justice Ward agreed: “Mr Ackroyd presents himself as a serious investigative journalist known to have a special interest in Ashworth Hospital. The way in which it has managed its patients was the subject of a public inquiry and was a matter of public interest. Arguably, the way in which it is presently conducting itself and especially the exposure of any malpractice is still a matter of public interest.”

In those circumstances, he felt uncomfortable at a court decision to order a journalist to reveal his sources without full investigation. Lord Justice May said Ackroyd had established a sufficient case to entitle him to a full hearing and he considered that Mr Justice Gray had been wrong in the High Court to decide otherwise. Although there was a clear public interest in preserving the confidentiality of medical records, that alone could not be the over-riding requirement, he said.

ACKROYD’S VERDICT ON APPEAL COURT

“This is a significant victory for press freedom. I have overturned a High Court order to disclose, within two working days, a confidential source of information. Substantial costs have been awarded in my favour and Ashworth has been refused leave to appeal to the Lords.

“All three judges backed me in overturning the High Court order. The lead judgment was given by Lord Justice May, one of the Appeal Court judges who presided over the Mirror’s unsuccessful appeal in 2000. He said: ‘I consider that Mr Ackroyd has a real prospect of successfully defending this claim notwithstanding the decisions in the MGN case.’

“The ball is now in Ashworth’s court. It has indicated it will go directly to the Lords in a further bid to prevent me giving evidence in person and calling witnesses at any trial. I will robustly defend further legal challenges. My position remains the same. As a matter of personal and professional conscience, I do not disclose confidential sources of information.”

By Roger Pearson and Jean Morgan

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