In defence of Suzanne Breen

The National Union of Journalists held a meeting on Tuesday in support of journalist Suzanne Breen. Following Breen’s reports in the Sunday Tribune on the Real IRA, she is facing the prospect of a court order under the Terrorism Act 2000 to disclose information, with serious implications for press freedom and for her own personal safety. Suzanne Breen told the NUJ about the background to her case. Jo Glanville’s speech in support of Breen is posted below. Other speakers included Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Bill Goodwin and Mark Stephens.

Any journalist who reports on terrorism faces a double challenge: the job of reporting in the first place on a highly sensitive subject, where gaining the trust of your sources is paramount. And then the challenge of dealing with the police once you’ve broadcast or published your story when they come after you for your sources, your notes and your research material.

What we’ve seen at Index on Censorship over the past year is an apparent increase in the police’s pursuit for journalists’ material in counter-terrorism investigations. It appears to have become routine for the police to go on fishing expeditions: broadcasters and newspapers can expect to receive vague, poorly defined production orders that ask for anything and everything in the name of counter terrorism — interviews, contacts, details of meetings.

It’s quite clear that journalists are being asked to act as an arm of the state. The potential chilling effect on investigative journalism is profound, the pressure this puts journalists under is extreme and the danger this can place them in — as in the case of Suzanne Breen — is unacceptable. It’s also unnecessary.

What we see happen in most cases is that production orders of this kind end up in months and months of horse trading in the courts — while media lawyers fight to limit the scope of the production orders. Time and money is wasted — and it is a hugely stressful experience for the journalists involved.

In fact, too frequently the police instinct for going after journalists and their sources degenerates into a farce as they put in production orders for material that is already in the public domain. One wonders if they think journalists are some kind of alternative library service. In Suzanne Breen’s case they even had the opportunity of arresting a member of the Real IRA — thanks to the Sunday Tribune story — but chose not to take it up. Instead, they went after Suzanne Breen. Putting her life potentially at risk — not to mention her livelihood as a journalist.

The continuing lack of recognition for the cardinal tenet of the protection of sources remains a grave concern, despite the Bill Goodwin case, where the European Court established the cardinal importance of the protection of sources as the bedrock of press freedom. And even despite the case of Suzanne Breen’s predecessor at the Sunday Tribune, Ed Moloney, where again there was an attempt to jail a journalist for not handing over material, and the judge ruled, “Police have to show something more than the possibility that the material will be of some use. They must establish that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the material is likely to be of substantial value.” Yet none of this seems to make an impact — no one learns any lessons. The same fight for principles has to take place over and over again.

The circumstances surrounding Suzanne Breen’s case — Martin McGuiness’s statement about “dissident journalists”, the fact that Suzanne’s lawyers were not allowed to see the evidence against her, the fact that she’s never been put under this pressure before for her sources — all point to a politically motivated scenario.

Following Shiv Malik’s case last year, Index held a meeting with leading media lawyers, including the lawyer Mark Stephens, the NUJ, the Society of Editors and Newspaper Society, to discuss how best to protect journalists facing production orders. We’ve since met with Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, and he’s now looking at a protocol drafted by the group which is in essence a code of conduct and of best practice that seeks to put an end to these routine fishing expeditions. It also seeks to make the courts and the police aware (although I do wonder how many times we have to make them aware…) that protection of sources is not some high-minded ethical ideal — it is the fundamental principle without which there cannot be a free press.

Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship