Friday, November 28, 2008

Evidence against journalists obtained through bug inadmissible, judge says

In the Guardian today:

A journalist who was accused of obtaining police information illegally walked free from court today after a judge ruled that prosecution evidence against her was inadmissible.

Sally Murrer, a reporter on the Milton Keynes Citizen newspaper, had been due to face trial along with a former Thames Valley police detective sergeant, Mark Kearney, after he was accused of leaking information to her.

Kearney was the police officer at the heart of a row over the bugging of Labour MP Sadiq Khan in an unrelated case earlier this year.

Murrer and Kearney were due to face trial after Thames Valley Police secretly recorded conversations that took place between them in the former detective's car.

However, in a landmark ruling today, judge Richard Southwell said that any evidence gathered by police using the bug should be excluded under European laws that protected the rights of journalists and their sources.

Speaking after reporting restrictions were lifted, Murrer said: "This is a victory, not simply for me, but for all journalists. My legal team have been absolutely superb and they have fought for all of us.

"It's been a very long, horrible, nasty and vindictive case and we are all exhausted. We have done all emotions over the last 19 months, now it's just about survival."

The ruling resulted in a costly prosecution case, which relied on the recorded evidence, collapsing before a lengthy trial was due to begin at Kingston Crown Court.

Murrer, 49, was accused of three offences of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. She pleaded not guilty to the offences in March.

Kearney, 49, from Leighton Buzzard, had been charged with eight counts of wilful misconduct in a public office by making unlawful disclosures about confidential information between July 2006 and May 2007.

A third man, a private detective and former police officer Derek Webb, 53, from Hertfordshire, pleaded not guilty to five offences of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.

They were due to stand trial early next year but have been formally cleared today after their barristers successfully argued that the use of the listening device was a violation of European Human Rights law.

During a four day hearing at Kingston Crown Court this week, judge Southwell was told that under Article 10 of the law, journalists' rights to freedom of expression were protected from interference by the state.

Murrer's solicitor, Louis Charalambous of Simons Muirhead and Burton, said: "Sally Murrer should never have been prosecuted. The safeguards enshrined in law for the protection of journalists have been trampled upon by Thames Valley Police - both at the outset and when they chose to bug Sally's conversations under a warrant that failed to mention that she was a journalist and later when she was arrested and brought to a police station, where, following a strip search and a night in the cells, she faced a gruelling interrogation - while her home and office were searched, and all of her notebooks seized.

"Had the case against Sally gone ahead, it would have signalled a lurch towards a police state, a situation which is abhorrent in the minds of right thinking people."

It was disclosed in February that Kearney had bugged a meeting between Tooting MP Sadiq Khan and his constituent Babar Ahmad, who was being held at Woodhill Prison, Milton Keynes.

Kearney claimed he was pressurised by the Metropolitan Police to secretly record the meeting.

Even though Murrer's charges were not connected to the MP bugging row, she has previously said she believes it is the "missing piece" in the jigsaw puzzle of her case.

Murrer has said that she believes that concern on the part of the police that Kearney - who she describes as a friend - would blow the whistle on the Khan bugging may explain the investigations into both of them, launched last year.

The National Union of Journalists, which had been backing Murrer, said Thames Valley police and the Crown Prosecution Service should be made to answer for the costly failed prosecution.

Jeremy Dear, the NUJ general secretary, said: "This is a major victory, not just for Sally but for all journalists. This case was yet another example of members of the police force believing they were above the law, able to trample over well-established journalistic rights and freedoms.

"Let's be clear, this was an attempt to make a criminal out of a journalist for receiving information that the state didn't want to get out. It was a misguided prosecution that sought to punish Sally for simply doing her job.

"This judgment sends a clear message to the authorities: they must recognise the importance of free and open journalism. Hard questions must now be asked of the police and CPS as to why these costly proceedings were allowed to get so far."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What price privacy?

The European Court of Human Rights' latest judgment in an Article 8 vs. Article 10 case raises an interesting question: what price privacy? Local courts awarded just under €3000 for an admittedly pretty egregious attack on privacy; the European Court said 'not enough' and found a violation of the applicant's right to private life. The judgment makes interesting reading and raises several questions - not just what is the appropriate price for a breach of medical privacy, but also whether a true statement of fact can be defamatory (something which Zagrebelsky, dissenting, seems to think but which the Court omits to discus). Even more interesting is that Popovic and Tsotsoria concur in the substance of the finding, but then dissent from the damages awarded by the European Court - €6500 - on the ground that this is too high.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Dutch abolish crime of blasphemy

The Dutch cabinet has reportedly voted to abolish the crime of blasphemy. It is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, as in its place it proposes to introduce new criminal restrictions on insulting people for their religious convictions. This 'cure' may be worse than the malady; given the number of thin-skinned religionists in the Netherlands (as elsewhere) today, it's a sure bet that there will be more than a few requests for prosecution...