MEN’s Panter named man suspected of Manchester bombing in 1996
The fate of Manchester Evening News reporter Steve Panter remained in the balance this week after he refused to name the source of a leak which enabled the paper to publish the name of the city’s IRA bomber. He had been ordered to do so by the trial judge at Manchester Crown Court.
Panter could still face a contempt hearing which could result in his imprisonment or a fine. As a defence witness in contempt, he would have no rights of appeal.
The hearing could be held before the trial judge or left to the Attorney General to begin proceedings which would then change Panter’s status to that of a defendant, with rights of appeal.
His editor Paul Horrocks says Panter was pilloried in court after defying the judge’s ruling that it was in the interests of justice for him to reveal his source when the jury was asked to decide whether a Greater Manchester police officer was that source.
Horrocks was speaking out after Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mutch, accused of misconduct in a public office, was found not guilty on Tuesday. During his summing up of the case, Mr Justice Leveson came down hard on Panter.
Horrocks objected to the attack on Panter and said his reporter was entitled to invoke his right to protect his source, granted by both Parliament and the European courts.
He stressed: "We will support him in every way to see his rights and his source are protected."
Panter, 42, the newspaper’s award-winning crime correspondent for 12 years before a brief period as news editor, was arrested and questioned for three hours in 1999 on suspicion of aiding and abetting Mutch. He was released without charge.
Horrocks said: "We are delighted the jury had no hesitation in accepting our journalist’s evidence to the court. We are pleased with the jury’s verdict which has brought to a close this police officer’s nightmare.
"We absolutely reject recent court criticism of the paper’s decision to publish the identity of the prime suspect in the Manchester bombing and we fully support Steve Panter’s right to protect his source."
The editor said that the MEN had waited two months after the article naming the bomber suspect was written before publishing it and had told police in detail about the information in its possession.
"At their request we deleted several items that might have hindered police operations. But we finally published because we believed the people of Manchester had a right to know that the police had identified the prime suspect, watched him on a return visit to Manchester but decided later not to prosecute because that was the advice from the Crown Prosecution Service.
"This was not an anti-police story. It was a story of very proper public interest. It praised the speed with which the suspect was identified but it raised questions about his right to walk free from arrest."
During the trial, it was revealed that Mutch and Panter had spent a night at a hotel in Skipton in February where, the prosecution alleged, the officer handed over confidential information about the bomber, who had not been prosecuted. Mutch and Panter maintained they were discussing a possible book on the Moors Murders inquiry.
Horrocks also said that the MEN had no wish to be in dispute with Greater Manchester Police or the court, but added: "Without our actions and Mr Panter’s journalistic research, however, the people of Manchester would still not know the name of the man alleged to have brought mayhem to our streets. That cannot be right." Tim Gopsill, for the NUJ, pledged the union’s full support for Panter. "It is extraordinary that no one has been prosecuted for the bombing, yet there has been a prosecution of a detective for allegedly leaking information, and there could be an action for contempt against a journalist."
By Jean Morgan