Reporter Sally Murrer has won a major victory for press freedom as charges against her were thrown out today.
The 50-year-old mother-of-three walked free from court, along with her police source, after a judge found that Thames Valley Police had no right to bug their conversations.
Murrer had been accused of encouraging a police officer to leak confidential information but evidence against her was ruled inadmissible after a five-day legal battle at Kingston Crown Court.
The Crown formally offered no evidence on seven out of eight counts on the indictment. The judge was asked to enter formal not-guilty verdicts on count eight.
A judge decided that her right to do her journalistic job had been breached under the European Convention on Human Rights and evidence against Murrer, her police contact and a private detective could not be used in any trial.
Sir Allan Green, prosecuting, told the court that the Crown’s case would therefore “fall away” but he was given until today to decide whether to challenge the judge’s ruling at the Court of Appeal.
Murrer, a part-time journalist with the Milton Keynes Citizen, was the subject of police covert recordings via a bug placed in the car of her police contact.
Her barrister successfully argued that her right to freedom of expression under the convention’s Article 10 had been breached as police had forcibly revealed a source-journalist relationship.
Gavin Millar QC told the court that Mark Kearney, then a detective sergeant with Thames Valley Police, was a confidential source and that the state therefore had no right to covertly record his conversations with Murrer.
He said: “A large chunk of the reporting we read in the newspapers and see on television originats from reports from confidential sources in public authorities.
“That is a form of journalism that needs protection from the law,” he asserted.
“Journalists should not be scared of conversing with confidential sources.”
He told Judge Richard Southwell at Kingston Crown Court that police should have made a source disclosure application to Murrer via the courts if they wanted to know who her source was.
“The prosecuting authority had no evidence whatsoever to suggest that she had even published any material that must have been given to her by a Thames Valley Police officer in breach of professional conduct,” he said.
He described the bugging of Det. Sgt. Kearney’s car as “a no-no, a pretty big no-no.”
The barrister added: “If the purpose of placing the device was to identify a source-journalist relationship, then the evidence is inadmissible.”
He said that if police were permitted to bug journalists in order to discover their sources, it would have “calamitous consequences” for the freedom of the press in the United Kingdom.
Murrer was accused along with Kearney and his former colleague Derek Webb, who at the time of the alleged offences was working as a private detective for national tabloid newspapers.
Richard Kovalevsky QC, counsel for Webb, successfully argued that material seized from the private eye’s home and car was journalistic material and therefore also covered by Article 10.
Courtenay Griffiths QC and junior counsel Sam Stein were also successful in arguing that Kearney was entitled to protection under Article 10 as the source was entitled to the same protection as the journalist.
The judge was asked to consider Section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) – that defendants have a right to have evidence excluded that was unfairly obtained.
Giving his ruling, Judge Southwell said that Thames Valley Police had failed to establish an over-riding public interest in the need to force the disclosure of Ms Murrer’s source by covert means or the search of Mr Webb’s house and car.
“In my opinion, given the type of information disclosed in this case and that it had little or no potential of harm or detriment to Thames Valley Police, they are some way from an over-riding public interest,” he said.
Despite the fact that the judge gave a landmark ruling in terms of the Press procurement of information from police sources, he refused to lift reporting restrictions on the preparatory hearing.
He dismissed representations from members of the press made on the day of the ruling (Tues) and at a separate hearing on Wednesday, preferring to reconsider reporting restrictions after the prosecution had made a decision on whether to appeal.
‘Run of the mill local paper stories’
The information that the crown had accused Murrer, of encouraging Det. Sgt. Kearney to leak to her, were described by her outside the court as “run of the mill, local paper stories.”
The first story was about a serving prisoner at a young offenders’ institution who was telling staff that he intended to be a suicide bomber when he left prison.
Murrer and Kearney were recorded discussing the prisoner’s actions but she never published the story.
The second was about a Milton Keynes Dons football striker Izale McCleod (corr) who was suspected of assault occasioning grievous bodily harm on a DJ at his own engagement party.
In a story, run under Murrer’s byline, a statement from the club confirmed that a player had been arrested but no charges were expected.
Millar refuted the Crown’s allegation that information about the victim’s stay in hospital was confidential, saying it was well known.
He added it was legitimate journalism in that there was a public interest in monitoring the conduct of high-profile individuals.
The third story was a follow-up relating to the murder of Douglas Belcher in Milton Keynes.
Murrer found background in her newspaper’s archive about the victim’s past which included a conviction for importing drugs and that he was the husband of an assistant to an MP.
Another reporter on Murrer’s newspaper went to the home of Belcher on the day the murder became public and obtained information about a false wall which hid a cannabis factory.
Thames Valley Police wanted the information suppressed, stating that it might cause members of the public to lose sympathy for the victim and discourage witnesses from coming forward.
The information about the false wall and the cannabis factory was later released by police officers themselves in an attempt to show the reason Mr Belcher had been targeted and prevent public fear that he was the victim of a random attack.
Speaking about the Milton Keynes Citizen’s use of the information, Millar said: “It does not mean that the information was confidential, just because (keeping it quiet) is what the police officer would have preferred.”
Murrer faced three charges of aiding and abetting wilful misconduct in a public office.
Webb, 44, of Holly Street, Luton, Beds., was also accused of four similar charges in connection with his work as a private investigator for national tabloid newspapers.
Kearney, 49, of Jerrard Close, Leighton Buzzard, Beds., faced eight charges of wilful misconduct in a public office and his son Harry, a 21-year-old serving soldier was charged with one count of aiding and abetting the above and possession of an ecstasy tablet.
No ruling was given in the case of Harry Kearney on Tuesday.
Speaking outside the court, Murrer said: “I feel shell-shocked, and for the first time angry at them for putting me through it. I did not do the things that they say I did.”
The three defendants had been bailed until today/yesterday (Fri) when Sir Allan gave his decision not to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Kearney had been excused from Friday’s hearing for personal reasons. His son has been absent from court throughout due to his commitments to the Army.