The price of source protection — a key tenet of a free, open press — is now approximately £43,000.
That is the cost Ian Paisley Junior will have to shoulder after being fined in Belfast High Court on 30 June for failing to disclose the identity of a source.
The source in question was a prison officer who Paisley Junior alleges told him that files relating to the 1997 murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison had been destroyed.
At present, a public investigation, the Billy Wright Inquiry, is seeking all documentation and source material that may be related to the controversial killing inside a supposed top security prison.
From the outset Paisley Junior told the inquiry that he could not betray the source of his information and would rather go to prison than hand over the officer’s name.
The son of the Rev Ian Paisley lost his case on Tuesday and as a result was fined £5,000. The extra £38,000 is the legal costs he must pay for both the Crown’s and his own defence.
Although it has received less publicity than the case of Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen a fortnight ago, the Paisley Junior case is important for all of those who think the flow of information from anonymous sources is important in a free society. Breen won her battle to not hand over material related to interviews she conducted with the Real IRA on the grounds that her life could have been put in danger. Paisley Junior, while not under any physical threat, saw it as a matter of honour that he would keep his word and protect the identity of someone in the prison service whose exposure could have had serious consequences for his or her career.
The controversy also raises an important point about the role of public inquiries and the danger of them turning into inquisitors. Several journalists have come under pressure from inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday tribunal to reveal sources that preferred to remain anonymous. The argument from these reporters is essentially the same one as Paisley Junior mounted regarding the Bill Wright Inquiry — that to reveal the identities of sources is a betrayal of them and the slippery slope towards scaring off whistleblowers coming forward with information the public has a right to know.
Suzanne Breen has won her right to withhold material from a police investigation in Northern Ireland after the court agreed with her that such action would be put her in the terrorist firing line.
Breen argued that not only was the hand over of such information a breach of journalistic confidentiality but it would also put her life in danger.
Today in Belfast’s Laganside Court the recorder, Mr Tom Burgess, concluded that the risk to her was “not just real and immediate” but also “continuing”.
Her legal team described his ruling as a landmark judgement in terms of press freedom in particular the protection of sources.
Joe Rice, a Belfast lawyer who has defended several reporters under similar pressure in Northern Ireland to disclose sources by the state and a number of public inquiries, said the significance of the judgment could not be underestimated.
Journalists operating in Northern Ireland are relieved that Suzanne Breen has won her case. The decision has major implications for other reporters here.
This not only includes correspondents who are under pressure from the state, principally the PSNI, but also from the range of public inquiries into a number of past crimes in the Troubles.
For instance, at least three correspondents have been subjected to the attempts by Blood Sunday Inquiry and the Billy Wright Inquiry to get them to hand over confidential material. When they refused, the legal teams acting for the inquiries have gone to court to force the journalists’ hand. At best, the reporters reluctant to reveal sources and confidential material to the inquiries face contempt of court charges.
The outcome of today’s case may have implications for them as well. And in addition for Ian Paisley Junior, the son of the Rev Ian Paisley, who is facing sanctions over his determination to protect sources. Paisley Junior will not disclose who leaked him details about the security regime inside the Maze prison at the time when Billy Wright, a loyalist killer, was murdered in the H-Blocks in December 1997. The DUP Assembly member, it should be remembered, is also trying to uphold the right of source protection and his case is as vital as the Breen case in terms of defending the free flow of information in a democracy. He goes to court on Monday week to find if his refusal to hand over sources and information to the Billy Wright Inquiry will either land him in jail or result in him paying a heavy fine.
Read the full judgment here
Belfast journalist, Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune does not have to hand over her notes to the police, the High Court has ruled. A judge ruled that to give up her sources and material would endanger her life. Read more here
Suzanne Breen gave evidence in the witness box today (11 June) and defended her decision to refuse to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation into the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland.
Breen told Belfast High Court that the Real IRA was “more than capable” of killing her, her 14-year-old daughter and her partner if she passed on relevant information to the PSNI. The police want Breen to hand over interview notes and other material to detectives in charge of the inquiry into the Real IRA murder of the squaddies in March this year.
Her defence goes to the heart of press freedom in the UK. Breen is defiant principally because of the need to protect journalistic sources, albeit sources involved or connected with terrorism.
The wider media community are so concerned about the implications of the PSNI winning this case that several high profile journalists were in court today. They included John Ware of the BBC’s Panorama, Channel 4 News’ Chief Correspondent Alex Thompson and media commentator Roy Greenslade.
Breen came under sustained questioning by the Crown, who wanted to know if she had taken any extra security precautions at her home, had changed her routine or had spoken to the police about security measures. The line of questioning became Kafkaesque because, as Breen pointed out repeatedly, she will only be under a Real IRA death threat if she retreats from her current position and hands over her material. Which is something the Sunday Tribune correspondent insists she will not do.
Apart from giving a robust defence for the need for journalists to protect their sources, Breen stuck to her line that co-operation with the PSNI would put her and her family in the firing line. She said she was not prepared “to place my life at risk and that of my child and my partner”.
When asked if she was prepared to go into a witness protection-style scheme, Breen said: “Northern Ireland is a small place and republican organisations can find out information about anyone.”
Breen added that by publicly taking the case against her in the High Court “I believe the PSNI has actually increased the potential threat to me”.
Henry McDonald is Ireland correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. His most recent book is Gunsmoke And Mirrors: How Sinn Féin Dressed Up Defeat As Victory