Thursday, July 30, 2009

Here is the name of our secret source ...

Dear Mr Goodman

Thank you for your letter asking me to name the person who handed over the confidential documents which showed that Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service was considering closing two fire stations in the county.

As requested, here is the name of the person who gave us the document: Ivor Story. He's an admin grade officer based at County Hall and his mobile number is 07976 78789. I hope that helps with your investigation.

Yes, that's right, journalists are always happy to name their sources. In fact, while I'm at it, would you like to know the name of the person who handed over the confidential documents that form the basis of our front page lead in tomorrow's Leicester Mercury? Or, perhaps, the real identity of Deep Throat?

What is it with council officials? Don't they have a proper job to do? Is Guy Goodman, solicitor and monitoring officer at the fire authority, so under-worked that he has time to waste writing to me asking me to reveal our source? Of course, he didn't decide to do it off his own bat - he was told to conduct an investigation by the Chief Fire and Rescue Officer, with the agreement of the Chairman of the Combined Fire Authority no less!

In a very formal letter addressed to me and marked 'Personal, Private and Confidential', Mr Goodman says: 'The unauthorised disclosure of this confidential report was a serious breach of both the Members' and Officers' Codes of Conduct. It is important that the source is identified and appropriate action taken.'

Important to who?

For the avoidance of doubt, it wasn't Mr Story. I made that up. Ivor Story (get it?)

Why won't I tell you? Apart from the obvious answer that says that nobody would leak information to the media if we revealed our sources, the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct, paragraph 14, Confidential Sources, says: 'Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential souces of information.'

And it's not just the code of conduct, the law is on my side (although I guess you already know that since you're a lawyer).

It seems likely that Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 would back our decision:

'No court may require a person to disclose ... the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.'
And Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights would seem to add further to our defence:
'(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority ...'
The approach of the European Court of Human Rights as to the role of article 10 in achieving this was clearly set out by the court in Goodwin v United Kingdom (1966) 22 EHRR 123 in these terms:

    "39. The court recalls that freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and that the safeguards to be afforded to the press are of particular importance.

    Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom, as is reflected in the laws and the professional codes of conduct in a number of contracting states and is affirmed in several international instruments on journalistic freedoms. Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public watchdog role of the press may be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected. Having regard to the importance of the protection of journalistic sources for press freedom in a democratic society and the potentially chilling effect an order of source disclosure has on the exercise of that freedom, such a measure cannot be compatible with article 10 of the Convention unless it is justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest."
So, Mr Goodman you will have to continue your investigation without our help. Unless, of course, you could find a better way to spend your time.

The moral outrage often expressed by council officials and elected members when they decide to hunt down somebody responsible for a leak is, at best, often disingenuous. So many of them leak documents when it suits them that they can't really expect to be treated seriously when they mount a high horse. I remember, many years ago, sitting in a council chamber listening to a council leader describing me as public enemy number one and saying that he would not rest until he had tracked down the source of a particular leak. There were two people in that chamber who knew who the source was - me, and the person who leaked it ... the council leader.