THERE is little to recommend the threat of going to jail, but I have discovered in the past couple of weeks that there can be compensations.
During a recent high-profile court case I was summonsed to give evidence about my sources for a series of stories run in The Herald a few years ago.
The court case involved a city councillor who was accused (as part of a civil action) of leaking council documents to me.
I have never named the leaker or leakers, and don’t intend to do so now. What’s more, I would not have done so in court either so I’m grateful to the judge in the case, who decided at the last minute that I didn’t need to.
Things could have gone differently, though.
Had I been obliged to stand in the witness box and face questions about my sources I would have had no choice but to respectfully decline.
It’s a matter of principle but one which the law is ambiguous about. A part of our voluminous legal code suggests that my silence is acceptable, while another implies that in certain circumstances it isn’t.
And if the judge is persuaded by the second part rather than the first, he or she has the power to send the recalcitrant journalist to jail for up to two years.
Well, The Herald’s lawyers said, it almost certainly won’t come to that. Fifteen days at worst – but probably a fine instead of custody.
A single sleepless night was all it took to convince myself that the principle was worth the price, whatever that might be.
The original story, back in 2008, was about an investigation by the Plymouth City Council’s own Standards Committee which was then referred to the more powerful Standards Board for England. At the time the council was very coy about the workings of its Standards Committee.
Although the accusations involved seemed to me to be relatively trivial, it was not my place to make that judgment.
But I did think the case needed to be in the public domain because, first, it involved a member of that very Standards Committee and, second, there is an ancient principle in Britain that justice should be seen to be done.
We take for granted that justice is done in public, but it is not a universal principle. Even in this country, only constant vigilance guarantees that it remains so.
For example, one problem with secrecy is that it can hide corruption and injustice. Another is that it is never air-tight. Rumours always leak out, and once they do they take on their own life. The only way to guarantee a fair hearing and to protect those involved is to air the truth and the facts in public.
Journalists traditionally will go to the wall to protect their sources, and although there might be an element of self-interest for the individual, the implications for freedom are huge.
We journalists may not be the noble Guardians of Liberty as we like to think, but we’re certainly among its watchdogs.
Even the best organisations and institutions have secrets which they guard jealously and usually with good reason. In a council this might be data about residents, or commercially sensitive information about contracts being put out to tender.
Secrecy is built in to protect the innocent, but the corrupt can and do use it to hide their misdeeds. The most high-profile recent example was the “Donnygate” scandal, which ended in 2002 when Doncaster’s former chairman of planning was sent to jail. The sentence brought to a close a scandal which, according to online news reports, had seen a group of 20 Labour councillors and ex-councillors steal millions from council taxpayers.
More recently, in 2009 full details of Parliamentary expenses were leaked to the Daily Telegraph by an angry “mole”, a scandal that has put four MPs and two members of the House of Lords in jail.
Most exposures of this kind rely on inside information, and because whistle-blowers are often anonymous they are quickly forgotten.
Newspaper editors have a duty to stand by their reporters, laid on them by the Society of Editors, but most – including the editor of The Herald – would do it regardless. Whistle-blowers rarely get such protection so their courage far exceeds anything required of a journalist, and it’s our job to protect them.
For some “moles” their whole livelihood is on the line. In 2010 an NHS worker was sacked from the job she had held for 27 years after she exposed senior doctors who were moonlighting at a private hospital.
Last year a solicitor at HM Revenue and Customs who disclosed that senior managers had let off Goldman Sachs from paying millions of pounds in tax penalties faced disciplinary procedures.
These are real and devastating punishments. Going to jail for a couple of weeks suddenly seems a small price to pay.
I’m not in the same league as prisoners of conscience like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and would not pretend I was. But in the same way as a piggy-back parachutist gets a taste of the thrills of skydiving, so I have had a flavour of what it is like to stand up for a principle.
It’s a good feeling … and even better when you don’t actually have to go to jail.