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Institute backs prison service whistleblower

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The Institute has expressed its support for a former Belmarsh Prison Officer and trade union representative jailed in Operation Elveden, the Metropolitan Police operation investigating journalists who paid public official sources.

Most of the journalists have been acquitted or told they will not be charged. This was the case with the Daily Mirror and News of the World reporter Stephen Moyes. The Mirror group surrendered the confidentiality of his dealings with Mr Norman who was prosecuted for misconduct in public office and jailed for 20 months.

The institute is the only journalist organisation to campaign for Elveden sources. We are pressing for new laws to give sources greater protection and a legal remedy to sue journalists or publishers who ‘burn’ them to the police or anyone else.

Robert Norman is the only Elveden source challenging his conviction and sentence on the grounds that his rights under Article 8 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights were violated. The Lord Chief Justice and two other appeal court judges are expected to give their ruling in October.
His barrister, Kier Monteith, told the court Mirror Group Newspapers handed over Norman’s details voluntarily to the police without a court-granted production order.

He said no newspaper can hand over sources, without breaching Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights dealing with freedom of expression and information.

The judge in Norman’s original trial should have stayed the prosecution, because the police did not go through the proper legal process when obtaining information about a confidential journalistic source from the Daily Mirror publisher.

Norman leaked concerns about staff cuts, a plot to assassinate a governor and claims that a Roman Catholic chaplain was having affairs with inmates.

The proposed state approved regulator, IMPRESS, which is backed by the NUJ, has included in its draft standards code that “Publishers must not pay public officials for information, except as permitted by law.”

It is astonishing that bodies purporting to represent the journalism profession should be confirming so enthusiastically the criminalising of journalism sources.

The 2010 Bribery Act has also criminalised the paying of any journalist sources as it does not allow for any public interest defence for journalists and the people giving them information.

Like the hundreds of public officials I had, and may still have as protected sources, Mr Norman is a man of courage and conviction. He was on the front line of the acute crisis in our country’s prison system.
He was a qualified and significant intelligence source serving the public interest to a free media in a democratic society that has a constitutional duty to hold government, and other state bodies to account in relation to the criminal justice system. He was an agent of democracy.

He was not being corrupted. He was being compensated, very modestly, for the appalling consequences of being discovered. This was not even a reward for favours. The £10,000 he received over 5 years for over 40 stories could not be construed in any way as bribery.

Truth to power

He was offering truth to power. He was communicating to the public in the interests of democracy, liberty and the freedom to receive information about what was being done in the name of everyone in society.

That flow of information was the source for legitimate debate, political discussion at the highest levels of public interest speech, for the purposes of public safety, for the purposes of evaluating our criminal justice system, for investigating and applying scrutiny to the efficacies, and rights and wrongs of imprisonment, and the regime of custodial penalty in Britain.

The state having been delivered the total betrayal of his Article 10 and 8 rights cannot pick and choose a judgement call on every item of information that he provided.

This was a legitimate consultative relationship between a confidential source and journalist. The state and its judicial system had no right to subject this relationship to the lurid and prurient speculation as to the varying pressure gauge of Mr Norman’s motivation, the personal likes and dislikes of his role at Belmarsh, and his relationship with the people he worked for and with.

What he did was at great and serious risk to himself and his family. The implications of discovery were sociological armageddon. This was visceral and personally existential. The sacrifice he was making was the devastating vulnerability to sacking, destruction of career, loss of pension, the annihilation of social and professional esteem, and the sentence of long-term and most likely permanent unemployment.

What employer would ever take the risk on someone who spied for the public interest? The exclusion confidentiality of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act protection of sources was created by Parliament to codify the longstanding common law pressing social need to protect public officials and give their courageous conduct safe harbour.

What he was also doing was also putting himself at greater risk of attack than the normal exigencies of his day to day job entailed. If there had been any suspicion that he were an observer and confidante for the public interest of journalism his life would have been on the line.

The payments were never a substitute for the living and dignity of secure employment that he jeopardised. They were honoraria to re-awaken confidence, assuage the terror of being discovered, reassure him as he lived with the constant fear of being exposed, constructed and condemned as the sneak and nark, and to confirm that his consultation and service were valuable, important, worthwhile and for the public good.

He and his journalist had committed to each other in a long term and serious relationship of one valued source to one professional and highly respected journalist. Mr Norman was not a prostitute of betrayal on hire to the highest bidders in the red light district of corrupt ignominy.

Violence

Real corruption in this context, in other words confirmation of the motive that he was only doing it for the money, would have been rewards greater than he had for his actual employment in the prison service, and promiscuous as with whom he was going to trade, and non-discriminating in the secrets he was peddling.

Mr Norman reminds me of the working class agent called ’Steve’ who risked his life for the Security Service for more than a decade by infiltrating the far right. By openly taking on the mask of the racist and fascist he lost his friends and endured the scorn and hatred of the people in his community that he valued most.

This agent saved lives and protected our society from atrocity, the explosion of racist violence and fracturing of peace and equilibrium. His work was wretched, terrifying, and all encompassing of his life’s identity in public and private space.

While operating undercover, it is likely he would have received modest regular payments, as many such agents do, and when he stopped, MI5 gave him a £5,000 pay-off. Nobody for one moment could argue that he had been corrupted, that he had been bribed, or that he had even been vaguely and appropriately remunerated.

The money was a gift, an honorarium, a gesture of support and gratitude.

Mr Norman stayed with his journalist and his journalist stayed with him. It was the equivalent relationship of the intelligence officer and handler to his intelligence agent in the field. In Mr Norman’s case the officer and agent were working for democracy and a free press, as the MI5 handler and far right undercover agent were working for the democratic imperative to thwart terrorism and the threat to public safety.

Both operations needed to protect the identity of the source for the public interest to be served. The Article 10 protection of journalist confidentiality is sacrosanct, a pressing social need, and a democratic necessity as significant and as valuable as the Security Service running and paying for agents in the field to protect our national security.

Do not think for one moment that every aspect of the far-right infiltrating agent’s spying and information gathering can be confirmed as morally justifiable or essential for the Security Service to know.

This system cannot operate by later ‘with hindsight’ forensic analysis, and confirmation of an intense balancing exercise of right and wrong, and measured against some artificial and subjective hierarchy of political speech to tittle-tattle gossip.

In ‘Steve’s’ case, he slept with at least one of his intelligence targets. As he was homosexual, it was not an assignment that he had any significant regret over.

The pillow-talk also yielded important information, but not every time they were in bed together. Can you imagine how a subsequent legal inquiry could problematically evaluate the legal and ethical virtue of this process? That is why common law, human rights law and legislation recognises that this actual narrative has to be covered by a legal veil, or shield.

The Daily Telegraph paid a public official well over £100,000 for a data disk of Parliamentary expenses that had been sealed from public access and denied to the public by the courts through freedom of information litigation.

Most of the information on that disc would not have satisfied the lofty resonance of the highest rung on the judicial public interest legitimacy ladder.

When the Sunday Times wished to expose the Thalidomide scandal, they paid their sources significant amounts of money.

Undercover

What ‘Steve’ the undercover agent for MI5 and Mr Robert Norman, the undercover agent for the national press at Belmarsh Prison had in common was being prepared to live in constant fear and to nobly serve the national and the public interest.

It may well be that I have to answer the key question: ‘Would I have willingly paid Mr Norman what he was paid by the two national newspapers that his journalist confidante worked for? My answer is an unequivocal yes.

Mr Norman reminds me of a public official who had been my confidential journalist source over many years. I will always remember his terror, his fear, his apprehension and need to be reassured, his hope and worry that perhaps I could not be trusted, or even if I could be trusted, I may have been under surveillance, had been clumsy, and risked inadvertently exposing him.

I will always remember how during our meetings his blood pressure would drop, the cold sweat would collect on his brow, his hands would be shaking, and be freezing as we bade farewell and his terrified eyes would flit from side to side in constant consternation and agitation.

I’ve never worked for news organisations that had any budget to pay their sources. But if I could have offered my source compensation for the courage, to mark the risk and value of his consultation, I would have been more than happy to do so. I would have advised him of the risks, of the nature of the law, as I always advised him of the limitations and vulnerabilities of my role as his journalist conduit.

But I would have been grateful and wanting to express the gratitude of a free and independent media serving the interests of thousands and millions of people who wish to be free to read, listen and watch what interests them, what concerns them, what worries and exercises their politics, their prejudices, their hopes, aspirations and curiosity.

Mr Norman is not a criminal. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He is not a corrupted public official, nor a cynical sneak seeking to exploit the secrets of his work for private profit.

He is a hero to democracy and an agent for the public good. He was an invaluable asset to journalism and served the public interest with courage, commitment and integrity.

He has been greatly wronged and is the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice. I believe it is my duty and that of the Chartered Institute of Journalists, the world’s longest standing professional association of journalists to give him our support, our sympathy, our solidarity and our thanks.

Tim Crook

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