Between a rock and a hard place

Ten years ago this week the biggest bomb planted on mainland Britain since the war devastated the city of Manchester, injuring 300 people — 13 of them seriously.

As the police investigation developed over the following months and years, Manchester Evening News crime reporter Steve Panter ensured his paper kept its readers informed of developments. He knew, for instance, that police had watched their prime suspect twice visit Manchester from Northern Ireland — but had not been allowed to touch him.

Eventually, three years later, the MEN decided to publish the name of this man — believing the Manchester public had a right to know why no arrests had been made.

Would you pay a Spotify-style subscription of £10 a month for access to most premium consumer news websites?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

It was a difficult decision that was to have severe implications for Panter. Greater Manchester police resolved to expose the leak and turned their attention to the crime reporter — obtaining his bank accounts, phone records and later arresting him. One of Panter's contacts, detective chief inspector Gordon Mutch, stood trial for misconduct in a public office.

He was eventually aquitted, but not before Panter had been placed under immense pressure to reveal his source of the story.

Here, in an extract from the MEN's comprehensive new book about the bomb and its repercussions, Panter relives Mutch's trial.

I MIGHT HAVE been appearing in the witness box rather than the dock, but I did feel I was also on trial when I was called two weeks into the hearing.

I had always believed that a journalist's right to protect a source was largely impregnable, unless I had witnessed someone carrying out a heinous crime, when to help police would be undoubtedly in the public interest. I carried that with me into the witness box. After all, this case was not about national security, but establishment embarrassment. Peter Wright, for the defence, was my first inquisitor.

Reporters I knew closely sat just feet away in the press gallery, a place where I felt more at home.

Wright: "Have you been the author of a number of exclusives… concerning the inner workings of Greater Manchester Police?"

Panter: "There have been some."

Wright: "Was Gordon Mutch your source of information?

Did he provide you with that file?"

Panter: "Absolutely not."

Wright: "Are you prepared to disclose the source of that article?"

Panter: "With respect, I am not."

Wright: "I shall ask you the same question. Are you prepared to disclose…?

Panter: "Again, with respect to the court, I am not prepared to do so."

Wright: "Who was the source? Are you prepared to tell us?"

Panter: "No, I can't. I'm sorry."

"It isn't a question of apology," said the judge, Mr Justice Leveson, in the first of several interventions.

Wright: "Is it the case, therefore, that you wish to exercise a right that has been granted by parliament in this regard… not to disclose your source?"

Panter: "I wish to do so, yes."

I had expected this hard line of questioning on sources from the prosecution, but not the defence.

I had said Mutch had not given me anything and that should have sufficed, or so I thought.

Then the cold reality set in. I believed I was being led into a trap and there was little I could do, apart from breach my code of ethics and let down every journalist and well-meaning whistleblower in the land, or stand firm.

Wright, QC, was about to ask me again who was my source when the judge told him: "I am going to have to rule upon whether Mr Panter is required to answer that question." He then asked the jury to leave the courtroom.

It was not long before the prosecution sensed blood and indicated to the judge that they too would want to ask me questions designed to identify my source.

The judge adjourned for a day of legal argument and would, the day after that, give his verdict on whether or not to overrule my right to protect my source, something I had once naively believed not possible.

While the Contempt of Court Act 1981 recognises the journalist's right to protect a source, there is an exception if "disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice, national security or in the prevention of disorder or crime".

The judge, who was "surprised" that the police had not tried to prevent publication of my original story by taking legal advice about a court injunction, had to balance English law with Article 10 of the European Convention, that relates to freedom of expression.

As his ruling developed, I knew that he was going against me and that there would be a demand that I reveal my source. The consequences were potentially grave.

Warning call The last time I had been inside Strangeways prison was when I became the first journalist to witness the wreckage caused by a mass riot.

I dreaded going again, especially as an inmate.

My safety would be at greater risk than the average inmate's. I was a crime reporter in the same city and my name was well known.

Inevitably, when a reporter's name appears on a crime story, villains take notice. Some crooks undoubtedly get a buzz from seeing their name in the paper, believing it elevates their "street-cred".

Others, depending on the nature of the story, take it personally. They wrongly assume that your name on top of a court story, or one in which police are quoted, means that the reporter is part of the establishment and not neutral.

As the judge went painstakingly towards his ruling on my alleged contempt of his court, my mind darted back to a call I had received from a CID boss a couple of years before telling me that he had to do a risk assessment on me.

A member of a gang had taken exception to a page-one story of mine about the murder of one of his close associates. He thought the story had "dissed" (disrespected) his dead mate. He vowed to take action against me.

Now, crime reporters do receive warning calls sometimes, but not often. This was different, because the gangster had unwittingly made the threat within earshot of an undercover cop, so this threat had credence.

My anxiety grew as Leveson reached his conclusions, with the Mutch trial jury out of court, so that it could not be prejudiced by the legal argument.

The judge considered whether it was necessary in the interests of justice for disclosure of my source — whether, without disclosure, the jury could exclude the possibility that the source was someone else, not Mutch.

"To allow the witness (Panter) to rely on Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act, prevents a meaningful analysis of his evidence… I have no doubt that it is necessary in the interests of justice to require disclosure.

I recognise, of course, the protection of journalists'

sources is itself a vital interest… in this case, however, I have no doubt that it is clearly outweighed by the interests which require disclosure."

The judge adjourned for what seemed like half an hour — I can't recall exactly — to give me an opportunity of discussing my perilous position with my barrister, Manuel Barca, and managing editor Brian Rhodes.

I firmly believed I had performed my public duty by giving evidence openly, albeit under subpoena. I could have said nothing at all. But I had given crucial evidence that it was not Mutch and that, in my view, was sufficient for the jury. Mutch was on trial, no-one else.

Despite all that, I had to make up my mind.

Should I disclose? Or should I uphold my journalistic ethics and refuse?

Jail was a real prospect. I would reach the crunch point when I returned to court within minutes to face cross-examination from prosecutor Perry.

As I waited for the court to reconvene, my mind was made up.

I also reflected that if I had lied at the outset and said the bomb document had arrived mysteriously in an envelope from an anonymous whistleblower, then I would not be in this dangerous situation now. It could not have been disproved and I could not have possibly been expected to reveal a mysterious source.

Perry opened up aggressively. "Do you feel proud of yourself Mr Panter… that you obtained confidential information concerning Operation Cannon?"

I wasn't sure proud was the right description, but nevertheless, I replied: "Yes."

Perry: "Do you accept it (publication) was detrimental to Operation Cannon?"

Panter: "I am an information gatherer. I don't have an opinion."

I then went on to say that the inquiry had come to an end and that the editor decided to publish because we believed that no damage would be done.

Perry then asked: "Is it your position that, as a journalist, you would do everything you could to protect your source?"

Panter: "Yes."

The judge: "Would that extend to permitting a wholly innocent man to face the risk of conviction and sentence?" It was a bayonet of a question and I was on the back foot.

This was my dread, that a wholly innocent man could be sent to jail because of a story I had written and because I was bound by professional ethics.

I was stunned by the question and I eventually gave an explanation that I had hoped my original statement that Mutch was "not, to my knowledge, the source" would have sufficed.

Then it came to the crunch.

Perry: "If I ask you to answer questions about a source, are you willing to answer them?

Panter: "With respect, no I am not."

Perry: "Who are you Mr Panter to decide whether it is in the interests of justice or not? You no longer have the cloak of journalistic privilege, because there is a greater interest than journalism in this country… the interests of justice. Are you willing to answer?"

Panter: "No, I am not."

Perry: "You are not willing to provide information to us?"

Panter: "Not about sources, no."

Perry ripped into me again about sources at the end of a gruelling full day "on trial" in the witness box.

Perry: "You have taken it upon yourself to decline to answer questions which the court has ruled you should answer in the interests of justice… have you not? Are you willing to answer questions about the source?"

Panter: "No, I am not."

The judge looked me in the eye from 10 feet away and asked: "You appreciate the potential consequences?" I nodded. I left court exhausted.

Defence QC Peter Wright aptly summed up my position and state of mind. He later told the jury: "Mr Panter was between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand he is seeking to clutch onto his cloak of journalistic privilege and before he knows it, is being stripped naked in front of you… but he stuck to his guns."

I was proud that I had upheld my principles in support of journalists everywhere and steadfast in my belief that I had done enough to help the jury reach a decision.

They did — and found Mutch unanimously not guilty after just three hours' deliberation.

It was my turn next, accused of contempt of court by a High Court judge.

Two key questions remain to this day. If my original story had been as damaging as the prosecution made out, why didn't the police seek a court injunction to prevent publication? And, if my refusal to name my source(s) impeded the jury and therefore the course of justice, why didn't the judge stop the trial?

The ultimate arbiter Sixteen days after the trial, I was in the dock. Refusal to answer questions was "classically contempt", Mr Justice Leveson said at a hearing to decide my fate.

Would the judge deal with me himself or would he accept my barrister's contention it should be referred to the Attorney General who would have to decide whether to send me to the Divisional Court in London accused of contempt? It seemed the judge had read the book I had co-authored a few years before, Innocents.

He referred to the book's prologue and a quotation from John de la Bruyere: "The punishment of a criminal is an example to the rabble, but every decent man is concerned if an innocent man is condemned."

Leveson said: "The question which arose in this case was: who should decide on the facts of this (the Mutch) case what questions should be answered in the interests of justice to ensure that an innocent man should not be condemned? Rather than accept the judgement of the court on that issue, Mr Panter decided that the ultimate arbiter should be him. Was he entitled to do so?"

There was legal precedent that a judge should only deal with a case like mine if it was urgent, otherwise it should be referred to the Attorney General "so that the judge should not appear to be both prosecutor and judge, for that is not a role that becomes him well".

My legal team discovered that a witness found to be in contempt by a judge for not revealing a source would have no right of appeal against the judge's ruling and therefore length of sentence.

Mr Justice Leveson took into account my rights under the European Convention and directed the case should go to the Attorney General. So, I had escaped prison in the short term, but would the Attorney General commit me for trial in the Divisional Court, where I would face the possibility of imprisonment again?

Following a campaign involving the NUJ and the support of many MPs, contempt proceedings were eventually dropped against Panter. He now teaches journalism at Salford University. Manchester police have never charged anyone for planting the bomb, and have now closed the case.



Our free daily round-up of the biggest news about the world of news

No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 + twenty =