Court failing to protect journalists and sources

L to R: Horrocks, Jaffa and Wallis discussed pressure to reveal sources

The burning issue for the media industry is the protection of journalists from the law, according to John Battle, head of compliance for ITN.

"The law, which is supposed to provide protection for journalists and their sources, doesn’t seem to have much clout," Battle argued.

Agreeing, People editor Neil Wallis said the courts and lawyers now made legal issues more dangerous for the business than ever before. "Lawyers are getting worse and more unscrupulous," he alleged.

Wallis fought for and won the right to name footballer Gary Flitcroft in a kiss-and-tell scandal because losing would have cost him £200,000.

"It was a minor story, but we wouldn’t give in because it mattered; it could have affected all of our jobs," he said. "What we have is a government of lawyers obsessed with regulation and we have to fight it off."

Although the Contempt of Court Act protected journalists from disclosure, said Battle, "when it comes to the crunch the courts are reluctant to offer real and meaningful protection".

This year there were three cases involving sources: Ashworth Hospital against the Daily Mirror, the Interbrew case and one involving the Manchester Evening News reporter Steve Panter.

ITN is already fighting in the courts to protect two of its journalists’ sources in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Battle said the courts’ attitude gave journalists the choice of telling potential whistleblowers that they couldn’t help them because they knew at a later date they would be asked to reveal the source, or of promising confidentiality and "putting their own liberty at stake – either way the public is the loser".

MEN editor Paul Horrocks called on editors to take every opportunity to lobby the Government and the judiciary.

"The erosion of our rights in protecting confidential sources is truly a dangerous state of affairs. The ramifications call into question the freedom of journalists to investigate sensitive issues without heavy-handed judicial pressure at some stage to disclose sources," he said.

Solicitor Tony Jaffa, whose firm Foot Anstey Sargent acts for many regional newspapers, was particularly concerned about "no-win, no-fee legislation", and its effect when the successful outcome for a litigant against the press meant lawyers could increase their fees by 95 per cent.

"The regional press in particular is being muzzled and prevented from doing its job for fear of legal costs."

By Jean Morgan

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