John McLellan: Journalists take risks when paying sources

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick was defiant in her address at the recent Society of Editors conference, defending the decision to prosecute journalists and law officers who were their sources.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick defend prosecuting journalists. Picture: PA Wire.
Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick defend prosecuting journalists. Picture: PA Wire.

The Operation Elveden investigation into the relationship between officers and the press resulted in the conviction of 34 sources, one of them ex-prison officer Robert Norman, who was paid £10,000 by the Daily Mirror for information about Belmarsh Jail. Norman is taking his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the conviction was a breach of his right to freedom of expression. Only one journalist, Sun crime reporter Anthony France, was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal a year ago.

Commissioner Dick still believes the prosecutions were correct, telling the SoE conference: “Corrupt police officers and other public officials were locked up for taking money for information – that is a good result.” She added: “I know that journalists were charged and then cleared and that caused a great deal of anger. I only ask that we try to move on now with clarity and lessons learnt on all sides.” But the Chartered Institute of Journalists, the non-TUC alternative to the National Union of Journalists, has been equally defiant and has just altered its Code of Conduct to include a clause which says that “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.”

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The problem is that the 2010 Bribery Act which made it an offence to pay public officials for information has no public interest defence. The government learnt its lesson from trial of civil servant Clive Ponting, who was cleared of breaking the Official Secrets Act in 1984 after successfully arguing that leaking information about the sinking of the Argentine battleship Belgrano to the late Tam Dalyell MP was in the public interest. Ponting wasn’t paid, but the result was the 1989 Official Secrets Act which ruled out public interest exemptions.

The CIoJ argument that some sources need financial protection and security therefore has little weight in law and doesn’t recognise that no matter how principled the recipient or defensible the leak, the very act of offering money is an incitement to commit an offence. The CIoJ’s position will need the ECHR to uphold Robert Norman’s right to pass on information but whether it supports his right to be paid is another thing entirely.

The offer of cash undermines the public interest defence itself if it can be shown the information would not have been leaked without payment. Proving the motivation is principle not money is a tall order.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor.