Protection of sources is a principle worth defending now more than ever

Trial of Chris Mullin for not revealing Birmingham Six sources begins this week

An angry mob greeted Chris Mullin two years ago as he left the new inquests into the Birmingham pub bombings, the blasts which killed 21 people in 1974. For some of the victims’ families, it was clear that the passing of 44 years had done little to dim their pain.

Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine died in The Tavern In The Town explosion, was particularly vehement. According to the Birmingham Post she called Mullin a “disgrace” and questioned “how he slept at night”.

Despite this fierce emotional pressure, and now an application to the courts, Mullin, an NUJ member for more than 50 years, has refused to disclose information given to him in confidence. Some believe his records could confirm the identity of one or more of those who planted the bombs. The case is due to be heard at the Old Bailey later this week.

I have deep sympathy for those who lost loved ones in such shocking circumstances. But I am just as clear that the NUJ will be backing our member to the hilt. In doing so, I hope we can persuade the broader public that far from hampering justice, it is Mullin’s steadfast determination to protect his sources that has inched this whole sorry episode towards just resolution.

The important facts of this case span my lifetime, happening in the year I was born. In November 1974 two bombs were detonated in Birmingham pubs, killing 21 and injuring 182. Within hours of the blasts, six Irishmen were arrested, and subsequently given life sentences. In the ensuing 16 years, significant evidence emerged that those convicted had nothing to do with the bombings – most of it unearthed by Mullin’s investigative journalism. Finally, in 1991, their convictions were quashed and the six walked free from the Old Bailey, where they stood, arms aloft, with Mullin in their midst.

It is hard to think of a journalistic campaign that was braver at its inception, more doggedly pursued, nor that has been so spectacularly vindicated. Had Mullin not persisted as he did, it is highly likely that the Birmingham Six would still be in prison, rather than being recognised as victims themselves.

That the NUJ stands shoulder to shoulder with Mullin will come as no surprise to those who know our union

Nothing that Mullin achieved, however, would have been possible without his absolute commitment to protecting his sources. Seeking out those who planted bombs and directed terrorism, as he did, placed him in very real danger. To win their trust and thereby get to the truth, with no special powers save his dedication and integrity, is a towering journalistic achievement. Had there been any doubt of his commitment to protect his sources, a far greater darkness would hang over this case still.

Union defence

That the NUJ stands shoulder to shoulder with Mullin will come as no surprise to those who know our union. It was the NUJ’s defence of Bill Goodwin in the 1980s and 1990s that established beyond any doubt that a journalist defending their sources has protection in law.

Goodwin’s case went to the European Court of Human Rights (a body whose jurisdiction the UK has accepted since 1950 and is unrelated to the European Union). Its ruling was that: “Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom... 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 may be adversely affected.”

This enshrines a vital principle. Alas, it has proved to be one that prosecutors have found depressingly easy to forget. A flick through the union’s legal case book provides a depressing litany.

We successfully defended Ed Moloney in 1999 when the police demanded his records of a conversation with a loyalist paramilitary. Safeguarding Robin Ackroyd’s notebooks took seven years, but we stood with him and his notes retained their secrets when we won in 2007. A year later, we supported Shiv Malik at a judicial review that significantly narrowed the scope of information he was required to disclose. Similarly, the production order served on videographer Jason Parkinson in 2011 in respect of his footage from the Dale Hall Farm evictions was substantially resisted. And just two years ago, the NUJ supported Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey when they successfully argued they were entitled to protect their sources – despite suffering dawn raids and the hijacking of their computer server.

Indeed, the assault on sources is ongoing and widespread. Julian Assange is facing extradition from the UK to face charges of cultivating and protecting a source. Daily we hear about intrusive software, such as NSO’s Pegasus, being used to snoop on journalists, to identify their sources. And, the UK government is preparing legislation that would broaden the scope of the Official Secrets Act to criminalise journalists who receive documents from whistleblowers.

This should concern us all. The ability of reporters to expose wrongdoing, incompetence and corruption is a vital check on democracy. Undermine that ability and the electorates will be hoodwinked, the power of corporations will be unchecked, and the innocent will languish in jail.

Wild horses, thumb screws, and a lengthy spell in prison would not make him break a confidence

For a grieving individual it is understandable when those broader benefits are obscured. The purpose of a civilised legal system, however, is to resist atavistic justice. Given the previous failings in the case by West Midlands Police, their conduct in this case is particularly depressing.

What will happen when the case gets to the Old Bailey, I don’t know. Of Chris Mullin’s instincts, however, I am pretty certain.

As his former parliamentary colleague Jack Straw wrote to The Times last week: “I have known Mr Mullin for 40 years. Wild horses, thumb screws, and a lengthy spell in prison would not make him break a confidence.”

I hope that the court rules out the application of any of the above. If they don’t, however, I am certain that journalism’s most sacred commitment will be safeguarded by one of its doughtiest defenders. He will have by his side, in spirit at least, every member of our union.