The Chartered Institute of Journalists has changed its code of conduct to explicitly allow journalist to pay sources – including public officials.
The move was motivated by Operation Elvenden, the Met Police inquiry which saw 34 tabloid newspaper sources convicted under the ancient offence of misconduct in a public office.
Many of these sources were jailed, even though the information they were paid for was in the public interest. Among those were Daily Mirror source Robert Norman who is currently appealing against his conviction to the European Court arguing that it was in breach of his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The clause states: “Journalists should be able to compensate sources of any kind in proportion to the public interest value of their information and the risks they are undertaking.”
Journalism professor Tim Crook who proposed the change told Press Gazette: “Essentially we are trying to give professional ethical legitimacy to the principle and concept of proportionate compensation and reward for public interest sources.
“We were motivated to do something to reverse the post Leveson damage caused by Operation Elveden, the misuse of RIPA 2000, and the lack of protection under RIPA 2016.”
Under new legislation police officers need approval from a judicial commissioner in order to view journalists’ call records to identify their sources.
But Crook warned: “Since misconduct in public office by communicating to journalists is now categorised as serious indictable crime the RIPA 2016 protection of source safeguard reference to judicial commissioners is meaningless.”
He said the change to the code “recognises the fact that any kind of source, whether public official or private citizen, sometimes needs financial protection and security”.
He added: “Would anybody seriously argue against a source working in public safety being paid £10,000 by a media organisation if their information had been able to prevent the Grenfell Tower disaster that claimed 71 lives?
“The custom and practice of a competitive British press providing financial rewards to confidential sources was a widely known tradition. The popular tabloids advertised explicitly that they paid for important stories. Charles Dickens paid Metropolitan police sources when he edited and published magazines and newspapers in the 19th century.
“Many of these sources have made a hugely positive contribution to society. Operation Elveden, meanwhile, has had a disastrous impact.
“It has catastrophically undermined the democratic necessity of protecting journalist sources, fundamentally damaged the ‘watchdog’ role of the media, and utterly discouraged the free flow of information to journalists – and as a result, to the rest of us.”
Journalists who pay public officials for stories risk prosecution for conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.
Payment to any employee for information relating to their work could lead to a prosecution under the Bribery Act which has no public interest defence.