It can be a lonely business, protecting your sources. Robin Ackroyd’s life over more than two years has been punctuated by discussions with barristers and visits to court rooms.
As a freelance, without the corporate comfort of a publishing company or a full-time wage behind him, he has had to face lawyers and judges determined that he should betray the person or people at Ashworth Hospital who, in 2000, passed him information about one of its patients, Moors murderer Ian Brady.
Fortunately, he’s had the stalwart support of the NUJ behind him but, nonetheless, any sources battle is ultimately a solitary one. Ackroyd has been resolute.
Now at last there are the first signs of support from the legal world. In the Court of Appeal last Friday, three judges delivered a crucial piece of good news: that Ackroyd should have the opportunity to explain his reasons for protecting his source in a full court hearing.
In doing so, they overturned last October’s High Court ruling that the journalist could have no defence – not even a public interest one – for refusing to hand over the source. That decision, said Lord Justice Ward on Friday, sent a “chill of apprehension” down his spine.
His chill, presumably, was more biting than the one that Lord Justice Woolf said he felt in 2001. Although it would have a “chilling effect on the freedom of the press”, he nonetheless ordered that the Daily Mirror – which had published the story about Brady’s hunger strike at Ashworth -must say from where it got the story.
That was the point at which Ackroyd stepped forward and his own personal battle began.
Had the ruling gone against him last week, he would have had two days to name his source.
Had he not done so, he may have been in prison by now.
Although that threat has receded for the time being, there may still be a long way to go. The NHS trust responsible for the hospital will try to appeal to the House of Lords. If that fails, it must then decide whether it wants the continued expense of a full trial.
Given Ackroyd’s resolve, it’s hard to see what there is to be gained from that. He has stood firm to defend a fundamental principle of journalism.
For that, he deserves all our support.