Jail threat over for reporter who named bomb suspects

Panter says he has been "torn apart" by decision to protect his source

Six tortured months after he refused to tell a judge who his source was when he named the prime suspect for the 1996 IRA bombing of the city, the Manchester Evening News’s Steve Panter has at last heard he will not be prosecuted.

He has endured a prolonged investigation by the police and an agonising wait to know if he was facing prison for breaching the Contempt of Court Act, but he has now heard that the Attorney General has decided not to prosecute because it was "not appropriate" and "not in the public interest".

In a week when the whole question of a free press has been brought into focus by the Interbrew battle with four national newspapers and Reuters news agency, Panter’s relief was palpable.

Panter, the MEN’s deputy news editor, said of his decision to protect his contact: "I was torn apart. If I betrayed a source I would never work in journalism again. Worse still, I would always feel a sense of cowardice and I would destroy someone over an article on a subject I believed the public should know about."

"It’s been hell for Steve," said editor Paul Horrocks. "I ran to tell him and and you could see him slump back with relief, with the torture of the last six months ebbing away.

"I’m glad for him that it’s over but the issue remains absolutely concrete and important – we don’t have to reveal sources to courts. This is a victory for the MEN but it’s also a victory for press freedom.

Horrocks is worried by the increasing tendency of judges to want to force journalists to reveal their sources.

"That’s the cornerstone of our code of journalism. If the public is going to have continuing trust and confidence in a media that can expose wrongdoing or encourage whistle-blowers to get in touch, then they have got to be sure that those sources remain confidential," he stressed.

In an article in Monday’s MEN, Panter told how the police tried to get evidence that he had colluded with one of their officers. It had got to the stage that he was so convinced his home and car were under surveillance that he was looking for bugs and having conversations with his wife in the back garden. The police went to a special court in York to get permission to examine all his bank accounts and financial records.

He changed his mobile phone from one with a provider to a pay-as-you-go because they are more difficult to tap.

Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act gives exemption to journalists not to name sources unless there are compelling reasons, said Horrocks.

"Why was it so important for the court to know Steve’s source? I think it was because the judge felt the security services had been so embarrassed and so compromised by this information coming out that it was more to protect and restore their reputation than it was to help the court."

The newspaper was prepared to go to the European courts to appeal any charge. Horrocks said the MEN had the full backing of owners the Guardian Media Group and the Scott Trust, despite horrendous costs. "One letter to the Attorney General cost us around £15,000 to £20,000 because of the level of expertise needed," he said.

By Jean Morgan

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