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It is worth quoting a recent ECHR fact sheet on the protection of journalistic sources in detail, given the disturbing events of today, when it has emerged that it is by admission “normal practice” for Strathclyde Police to browbeat journalists in an effort to pressure them into revealing the sources of news stories that may cast them in a negative light.
“The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly emphasised that Article 10 safeguards not only the substance and contents of information and ideas, but also the means of transmitting it. The press has been accorded the broadest scope of protection in the Court’s case law, including with regard to confidentiality of journalistic sources,” the fact sheet begins.
It then quotes the landmark Goodman case, which enshrines the Article 10 entitlement of journalists to protect their sources.
“The protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom,“ it says.
“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 be adversely affected. An order of source disclosure ... cannot be compatible with Article 10 unless it is
justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest.”
The Goodwin case, perhaps unsurprisingly, originated in the UK.
What has emerged through The Firm’s reporting of on Operation Rubicon, the Scottish investigation into phone hacking, police corruption, breaches of data protection and matters arising out of the Tommy Sheridan trial is that Strathclyde Police’s major investigation, backed by significant resources, is beginning to look like nothing more than an elaborate smokescreen, concealing a less than half hearted effort by the police to investigate themselves. Whilst in England, numerous Chief Constables, Deputies, Superintendents and all manner of major figures have been obliged to resign due to the findings of Operations Elveden, Weeting, Tuleta and the Leveson Inquiry, the only action that has arisen from Rubicon in almost exactly a year of activity is the arrest of Andy Coulson for perjury, a matter which could have been dealt with at the conclusion of the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial seven months before Rubicon was initiated. All in all, not much to show for a year’s work, in this reporter's view.
The Firm reported this afternoon that the officer leading the inquiry, DS John McSporran had, according to sources, stated that Rubicon was not looking into police corruption or phone hacking, contrary to the extensive remit provided by the Crown Office. The police were made aware of the claims before the story went to press, and in due course DS McSporran provided a carefully hedged statement which was also duly reported, and as far as the public interest function of journalism is concerned, all was more or less right with the world.
And then the phone went.
A “media manager” from Strathclyde Police called and asked The Firm repeatedly to disclose the source of the original story, seemingly unaware that there is not a court in Europe that would support the notion of the police obliging a journalist to do so.
The inappropriate nature of the request was of course duly pointed out, but the officer in question said that they “did not see a problem” in being told the source.
“I need to speak to the Chief Constable about this,” I told the caller.
“No, you don’t.”
“Who do you report to?” I asked.
“I report to the Deputy Chief Constable”
“I need to speak to the Deputy Chief Constable immediately please.”
“No you’re not [sic]” I was told.
“I’m not putting you through to the Deputy Chief constable. Why can’t you deal with this with me? You are being utterly unreasonable.”
The identity of the media manager has been established and the entire issue is now subject to complaint raised with the Deputy Chief Constable who, one would anticipate, would immediately disavow such a prima facie breach by the state of the ECHR protections afforded to journalists, and confirm that he supports the protection of journalists' sources fully throughout the organisation, including its media managers (whatever they are…).
Public interest has prompted me to publish this blog and open the debate out to those elsewhere in the media or public life who may have insight into what ought to be a rogue incident, but which may in fact be more widespread.
You see, the practice of applying pressure to seek sources from journalists is evidently routine, something the media manager was prepared to confirm in writing by way of email follow up.
“I am writing to request that you confirm where the comments attributed to John McSporran came from. I deal with journalists every day and most will be good enough to confirm where they have got their information in order that we can answer their enquiry as accurately as possible,” a subsequent email read.
“I would reiterate it is normal practice for us to ask journalists where they have got their information from. They are not obliged to tell us however most usually do in order to assist us in answering their questions and confirming or otherwise if that information is in fact correct or incorrect.”
One finds it hard to believe that most journalists would be “good enough” to confirm the identity of their sources under any circumstances. If applying this pressure is indeed “normal practice,” perhaps Lord Leveson may want to ask another question or two of Chief Constable Stephen House, to ask him why. Lest we forget, House also told the inquiry in the full glare of planet Earth that Strathclyde Police officers were “taking money”, something that has not resulted in any subsequent arrests by the officers of Operation Rubicon.
Another news outlet today reported that Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has claimed that Scottish Government phones have been hacked, less than a week after the First Minister told the Leveson inquiry that he believed illegality was rife across many, many newspapers. The evidence in the public domain that attests to the possibility of police corruption is everywhere. According to The Guardian’s review of “Enquirer”, a performance play based on interviews conducted with figures operating in the prevailing media environment, well kent face Jack Irvine is “alarmingly unguarded about his time as launch editor of the Scottish Sun,” and openly boasts of bribing the police.
"I had a black book of cash payoffs," he says, adding that payments were made to ambulance crews, social workers and royal staff. "Is it illegal to pay cops?" he asks, seemingly in all innocence.”
If such alleged corruption is capable of discovery by any member of the public enterprising enough to visit the theatre, yet has not been unearthed by a significantly resourced team of police who have been at it for a year, the actions of a police force that not only trample over the basic protections of the free press, but are also confident to do so in writing, warrant further scrutiny. One also has to look afresh at the low arrest rate arising from Rubicon and ask what exactly is happening there.
I understand that Rubicon personnel will shortly be subject to redeployment to cover the Olympics, and if that is the case there may not be much more fruit to be borne from its labours. If its sole legacy is the new practice of hunting journalists' sources, the present, far less the future of journalism in Scotland is fragile indeed.
Postscript - 12 July 2012
This is the text of an email I received from the "Professional Standards Department" of Strathclyde Police, in response to my concerns addressed to the office of the Deputy Chief Constable on 18 June, the day this piece was published;
"Unfortunately the email dated 18 June 2012 was not actioned due to an administrative error for which I apologise.
"However, you will wish to be aware that an officer from this Department has been appointed to examine the matters raised and will make contact with you in early course in order to progress same."