The exposure of 32 journalistic sources by News Corp and Trinity Mirror raises huge moral questions for the UK’s two biggest newspaper publishers.
The human consequence of that exposure is illustrated by the case of Robert Norman. He was a prison officer who contacted the Daily Mirror with a story about prison safety, who then became a paid tipster for the paper and who was sent to prison after publisher Trinity Mirror decided to volunteer information about him to the police.
The events which led to the exposure of the Sun and Mirror sources, and the arrests of 34 journalists, began in July 2011 as News Corp struggled to contain the fallout from the hacking scandal.
The decision was taken by News Corp to close the News of the World and an autonomous Management and Standards Committee was set up, reporting in to New York and headed by Anthony Grabiner QC. Former Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis was also a member of the MSC.
It supervised a search of the company’s email systems which turned up widespread evidence at The Sun of payments to public officials..
We have heard in court that one of News Corp’s motives in handing over this evidence to the police was to avoid a corporate prosecution.
Trinity Mirror adopted the same policy as News Corp, conducting its own search of email databases and giving up a handful of journalists and sources to the police.
It too was apparently motivated to cooperate fully because it was under threat of corporate prosecution.
Both companies appear to have given scant regard to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which gives the highest legal protection to the confidentiality of journalistic sources.
Rupert Murdoch himself admitted this cooperation was a “mistake” in a secretly-taped meeting with Sun journalists in 2012.
He said: “But in that atmosphere, at that time, we said, ‘look we’re an open book, we will show you everything.”
Current chief executive of News UK Rebekah Brooks was herself questioned under Operation Elveden and stood trial partly as a result of information turned up by the MSC. So I suspect from the top down, at News UK at least, there is no-one who believes the disclosure of confidential emails incriminating journalists and their sources was a good idea.
Once News Corp and Trinity Mirror lawyers had uncovered suspected criminality, perhaps they had no choice but to hand over what they knew to the police.
But lawyers would have presumably signed off many of the payments in the first place and taken the view that they were OK because they divulged information which was in the public interest.
Clause 14 of the Editors’ Code states: “Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.”
But that code means little if it is observed by editors, but ignored by their employers.
I’ve asked both companies to explain why they shared the information they did. The answer in both cases was: No comment.