This week’s upcoming hearing at the Old Bailey to challenge the use of anti-terrorism legislation to force journalist and former MP Chris Mullin to reveal confidential sources relating to his investigations into the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings must not be held in private, the Society of Editors has warned.
Speaking ahead of the hearings scheduled on Thursday and Friday of this week, the Society has responded to reports that West Midlands Police has made submissions asking for Friday’s hearing to be held in private. The Guardian has reported that the reason cited for the submission is the need to protect the privacy of a suspect whose name may be mentioned in court who has not been charged. This privacy consideration follows the ruling in last week’s Supreme Court Bloomberg v ZXC case that a person under criminal investigation has ‘a reasonable expectation’ of privacy prior to charge. The Bloomberg ruling has been heavily criticised by the Society of Editors.
The decision to move to ban reporters from Friday’s hearing is a “grave threat to press freedom” and goes against the principle of open justice, the Society of Editors has warned.
Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society said: “The decision to move to ban reporters from Friday’s hearing at the Old Bailey is deeply worrying given the immense public interest in Mullin’s upcoming challenge. As warned by the Society following last week’s Bloomberg Supreme Court ruling, legitimate public interest journalism is at risk of going unreported if privacy considerations continue to take precedent over the public’s right to know.
“Not only is it essential that the actions of the police in this case are open to public scrutiny, but the case also threatens one of the most important and fundamental principles of journalism codes of conduct. At a time when the government is currently consulting on enabling statutory provisions for the protection of journalists’ sources in a Bill of Rights, the decision by West Midlands Police to pursue this order against Mullin in pursuit of his sources is a grave threat to press freedom.
“What is even more worrying than the decision to use anti-terrorism powers to pressure a journalist is the prospect that the challenge may take place behind closed doors without journalistic scrutiny. It is essential on behalf of all reporters and their future ability to protect their sources and enable public interest journalism to continue that this challenge is held in public.”
It is understood that alongside The Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Times also plan to challenge the attempt to have the hearing held in private.
Mullin, a former MP for Sunderland South, was instrumental in exposing the miscarriage of justice suffered by the Birmingham Six who were convicted of the bombings in 1975. In 1986, Mullin published a book, Error of Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Bombings which contributed to the release of the wrongly convicted group in 1991.
Mullin, supported by the National Union of Journalists, is challenging the production order later this week on the basis that disclosing the material requested would be a fundamental breach of the principle that journalists are entitled to protect their sources.
Mullin said: “If West Midlands Police had carried out a proper investigation after the bombings, instead of framing the first half-dozen people unlucky enough to fall into their hands, they might have caught the real perpetrators in the first place. It is beyond irony. They appear to have gone for the guy who blew the whistle.”
Photo: Matthew Cooper/PA