Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Prison whistleblower fights on to UK Supreme Court

UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square. Image: Tim Crook.

The former Belmarsh prison whistleblower, Robert Norman, is appealing to the UK Supreme Court over his conviction under Operation Elveden for taking money for stories on Britain’s prison crisis.

He lost at the Court of Appeal in November 2016, but his campaign for exoneration, which is supported by the Institute, has been taken up by Press Gazette and the Guardian columnist professor of Journalism at City University, Roy Greenslade.

Mr Norman told Press Gazette he ‘was arrested at 5.45am in the morning by 16 Metropolitan Police officers barging into my house – all that was missing were the helicopters and the napalm.’

The trauma led to a catastrophic breakdown in his wife’s health, the loss of his house to pay legal costs and imprisonment for leaking stories that he believed amounted to no more than staff employment misconduct and dismissal if found out.

His barrister Keir Montieth of Garden Court Chambers has submitted appeal papers which argue that upholding the conviction is having a chilling effect on freedom of speech by deterring sources from providing information to journalists.

Grounds for Supreme Court Appeal

Norman’s case is that the Daily Mirror breached his Article 10 freedom of expression rights by volunteering his identity to the police instead of waiting for the police to make an application under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

UK Supreme Court. Image: Tim Crook.

Mr Montieth says the effect of the case is that ‘potential sources will not contact or co-operate with the media and journalists will not contact those that are or might be public officials.’

The Supreme Court appeal will question whether accepting money from Trinity Mirror for stories was ‘serious criminal conduct.’

His lawyers say that historically the payment of money to sources has been compensation for the risks of providing information and has operated as an established contractual method of investigative journalism.

The Supreme Court Justices have been informed that paying sources is on occasion the only method used to obtain information for many of the stories that appear in the press.

Norman’s legal team has cited the Daily Telegraph’s MPs expenses scandal scoop as one example, when the paper paid more than £100,000 for information which led to several successful criminal prosecutions.

Since the appeal ruling the crisis in Britain’s prison system that Robert Norman predicted from 2006 has worsened.

There have been repeated reports of growing suicides among inmates, riots, murders and widespread drug-taking.

Worsening prisons crisis

In February 2017 BBC Panorama broadcast a programme with footage gathered by an undercover reporter who spent two months in HMP Northumberland.

ScreenshotofBBCPanoramaBehind BarsPrison Undercover
Behind Bars: Prison Uncover. A BBC Panorama investigation revealed true nature of the country’s prisons crisis.

He discovered widespread drug use, poor regimes, door alarms not working, a hole in a security fence and a failure by the staff to exercise proper control of the prison.

Mr Norman told Press Gazette that all the stories he gave Daily Mirror reporter Stephen Moyes, who later went to work for the News of the World, ‘were true, in the public interest, highlighted dangers to the public and dangers to staff, and were later confirmed by the Prison Service press office.’

Flaws in Court of Appeal ruling

The Lord Chief Justice was preoccupied in his court of appeal ruling that Norman was paid £10,684 for sharing 40 pieces of information over five years.

Court of Appeal Criminal Division turned down Robert Norman’s appeal against conviction in November 2016.

The judges said Trinity Mirror and News International revealed him as a source to the police because they voluntarily wanted to report serious crime.

News International was ‘keen to be able to portray its position to the Leveson Inquiry as one of full cooperation in the light of the widespread public concern at that time about the activities of the press and how they obtained their information.’

Yet even the trial judge had conceded:

On all the available material I accept that there is a reasonable inference that they did so not for altruistic reasons but rather in the hope that by so assisting the police, there was a likelihood that any possibility of prosecutions at a higher level would be avoided.

Robert Norman says being paid was not a driving factor in his whistle-blowing.  He was more motivated in exposing problems undermining the safety of Belmarsh prison.

This included high category prisoners being downgraded simply to ease overcrowding and the failure to properly search inmates.

Former Daily Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade says the board of the Trinity Mirror should resign.

He expressed outrage that in sacrificing one of the cardinal principles of the profession, ‘it set in train events that have wrecked the life of a confidential journalistic source.’