Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen will have to wait until next week for the judgment in her sources battle with police.
The leading Northern Ireland journalist told a court today she was not prepared to put herself under sentence of death from the Real IRA by handing information to the police about the terrorists’ murder of two soldiers.
Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde has taken Suzanne Breen to court seeking an order that would effectively compel her to disclose a source to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
But Breen told the court she would not break the journalistic code of protecting the identity of sources.
She added: “I am not going to put myself under a death sentence from the Real IRA. I want to continue living in Northern Ireland, working in Northern Ireland. I want to protect the life of my daughter and of my partner.”
Breen, the northern editor of the Dublin-published Sunday Tribune, received the Real IRA’s claim of responsibly for the killing of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar at the gates of Massereene army base in Antrim in March and interviewed a member of the organisation.
When she refused to hand over mobile phone records and notes to the police they took her to court.
Last month the police explained in secret to Belfast Recorder Tom Burgess why they wanted the information – Breen and her legal team were excluded from court.
Today it was her turn to explain to the judge why she would not comply with the police request.
Breen said protection of the identity of sources was “an absolute” which, if broken, would prevent her being trusted again.
“It is the lynchpin of investigative journalism. We are journalists. We are not detectives. We chose to become journalists, not to become police officers or detectives.”
Breen added: “I have been told by a source that my life would be in danger if I co-operate with the police.
“I was told: ‘You know what co-operation with the PSNI means’.”
She said the Real IRA told her they deliberately shot two pizza delivery men in the Antrim attack for serving food to the soldiers.
If they were prepared to do that “a journalist making a witness statement to the police would be an even graver act in the real IRA’s mind – I would be making myself an immediate target”.
“If I co-operate with the PSNI the Real IRA will treat me in the same way as they treated the pizza delivery men,” she said.
“I would be in immediate and absolute danger.”
Disruption to private life
Her barrister, Arthur Harvey QC, told the judge that one of the significant issues raised by the case was “the right to life under article two of the European Human Rights Act, and the discretion the court has in dealing with matters such as this.”
He said journalistic material was “specially protected” under the provisions of the Terrorism Act of 2000 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Order Northern Ireland.”
He argued that disclosure to the police would put her at a risk that could not be managed without the total disruption of her right to a private life and destruction of her career as a journalist.
Tony McGleenan, for the PSNI, argued there was a live and ongoing investigation into the murder of the soldier.
“The public interest is that the police investigate a crime and then bring to justice those who took lives in Antrim.”
The National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct over the protection of the identity of sources carried no legal force, he said.
“The court is not concerned with codes of conduct. The court is concerned with law,” he added.
McGleenan said there was no current threat to Breen’s life and the court could not use article two based on what might happen, only if a threat was real and immediate.
“The court can make the order and if a risk arises the onus is on the State to protect her,” said McGleenan.
That could involve increased protection, fortification of her Belfast home and increased patrolling around it, he suggested.
“Her case doesn’t get past first base in legal terms.”
Harvey argued: “Because of the unpredictability of organisations such as the Real IRA it is appreciated that no state, however well intentioned, can prevent the murder of individuals. All it can do is take reasonable steps.”
He said it was disingenuous to suggest there was only a subjective risk to Breen.
Urging Sir Hugh Orde to withdraw the application, he added he could not think of anything the Chief Constable could do that was “more designed to frustrate rather than uphold the rule of law.”
Prominent journalists, including John Ware of BBC Panorama, Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times’s Liam Clarke, gave evidence to support Ms Breen’s stand against revealing her sources.
Ware said he did not remember either of the two Chief Constables before Sir Hugh pursuing journalists even at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles and considered it “a bit strange” he was doing so now.
He said the Real IRA would not hesitate to kill Breen if she co-operated, adding: “These guys are the Taliban of the republican movement.”
Former Fleet Street editor and professor of journalism Roy Greenslade said protection of sources was a key tenet of journalism.
The job of journalists was disclosure, the job of police was detection, he said.
“They may be related but should never overlap,” said Greenslade.
Breen’s editor at the Sunday Tribune, Noirin Hegarty, said it was newspaper policy not to disclose sources.
“If we didn’t have trust we could not produce responsible journalism,” she said.
The credibility of the Sunday Tribune was arduously won, and could be easily lost, she said.
The judge reserved his judgment which he said he would deliver next week.