Metropolitan Police v the Guardian: why application was doomed

21 September 2011

Author: 
James Welch, Legal Director

So the Met has backed down in its attempt to force Guardian reporters to reveal confidential sources – that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows the Human Rights Act. Leaving aside the irony of prosecuting those who blew the whistle on the hacking scandal rather than cover it up, the Met’s application was always doomed to failure.

It’s hardly unprecedented - freedom of expression, Article 10 of the HRA, has come to the aid of journalists time and time again. It’s a vital tool for the media as not only does it give everyone the right to freedom of expression, it also ensures the freedom to receive and impart ideas without State interference.

The Guardian isn’t the first paper to have been threatened in this way - the protection of sensitive sources, the cornerstone of ethical reporting, has been challenged by the State in a number of high profile cases.

In 2001 a journalist at the FT received a leaked document about a company takeover by Interbrew. The paper, along with the Times, Independent, Guardian and Reuters, reported on the issue and referred to the leaked document. Interbrew, furious at the story, brought proceedings against them all, seeking to identify who had leaked the information. The Courts took a different view and ruled that Interbrew’s interests did not outweigh the public interest in the protection of journalistic sources.

Investigative journalist Suzanne Breen, editor of the Sunday Tribune was ordered to hand over notes containing information on the Real IRA – the High Court in Belfast also ruled her sources were protected under Article 10. The list goes on - no matter how annoying, inconvenient or embarrassing the story might be to the authorities, the protections of Article 10 allow reporters to do their job freely and without intimidation or threat.

Only this year we have seen how important undercover reporting and the exposure of matters of public interest can be – who could forget the Panorama care home investigation which uncovered the shocking and degrading treatment of residents? The past few months have seen attack after attack on human rights - we hope that editors and journalists remember just how important they are to a free press.