The Met Police has lost an application to seize journalists’ notes from their interviews with ISIS bride Shamima Begum.
The Times, ITN, Sky News and BBC all fought the production orders in court, with a judge at the Old Bailey ruling in their favour today.
The order would have covered unbroadcast and unpublished material relating to interviews that took place with Begum in February this year.
Begum was one of three teenage girls who ran away from Bethnal Green, east London, in February 2015 to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
Police have launched an investigation into Begum, who is currently living in a refugee camp in Syria following the defeat of ISIS in the region.
Judge Mark Dennis QC ruled there was “no pressing social need” at this stage of the police probe to justify overriding journalists’ freedom of expression rights under Article Ten of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judge said Begum had her UK citizenship stripped by Chancellor Savid Javid, then Home Secretary, in February – which she is appealing – making it unlikely she will face prosecution here in the foreseeable future.
He said the only factor that might justify overriding the journalists’ freedom of expression rights would be the “real risk that such material may be lost in whole or in part over the passage of time”.
He therefore ordered that the material sought by police to be kept at a named solicitors’ office so another production order could be sought if Begum’s circumstances were to change.
All four of the news organisations have already agreed to share full copies of broadcast or published material relating to Begum with the Met.
A Times spokesperson said of today’s ruling: “We are pleased that the court carefully considered the significant public interest issues at the heart of this story and commended our investigative reporting.
“It is essential that journalists are free to report without fear or favour and are able to protect their sources.”
Times’ editorial legal director Pia Sarma said the police bid for journalistic material “seemed to be a premature fishing expedition”, adding that the paper was “grateful to the judge for the ruling”.
John Battle, head of compliance for ITN, said the ruling was a “victory for journalism”.
“[The] judgement recognised that this was high public interest journalism that had been obtained under difficult and dangerous circumstances.
“The case recognised that the journalist getting information relies on being independent, neutral and impartial.”
After she left the UK for Syria aged 15, Begum was not heard from for four years until Times war correspondent Anthony Loyd tracked her down in a refugee camp in northern Syria in February.
Judge Dennis said: “There is no doubt that the initial Times report was a commendable piece of investigative journalism and represents a significant public interest story which has opened up an important issue for public debate.”
Begum subsequently gave a number of broadcast interviews, including with BBC Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommerville, ITV News security editor Rohit Kachroo, and Sky News’ John Sparks.
The Met dropped its production order against Sky News during a hearing last month after the broadcaster gave its assurance that only a few sentences of its interview had been omitted from the final broadcast.
But the judge said the other three news organisations had “significant periods of time in their respective interviews which don’t feature in any broadcast recording”.
Loyd spent 90 minutes with Begum, but only a 17-minute interview was published. The BBC broadcast four minutes of a total of 56 minutes recorded over two interviews, while ITV News edited out 18 minutes.
The judge noted that the work of journalists relies on trust, confidentiality, the protection of sources, perceived neutrality and people who are prepared to place their trust in the media.
But he said there was no suggestion the publication of journalistic material in this case would breach Begum’s confidence “or place a journalist at any greater risk of harm” than the initial publication would have done.
“To that extent the reported interference with the journalists’ rights in this matter doesn’t have the same adverse impact as [it] would have for the breaching of a source or confidentiality agreement.”
Richard Horwell QC, representing the Met, argued in court last month that confidentiality was a”very important ingredient” in evaluating a journalist’s Article Ten rights. “Here there is no confidentiality”, he said.
Judge Dennis said today that Begum would have been aware she was speaking to a journalist in each case and that her comments would have been broadcast or published, adding that she may even have “welcomed the publicity”.
Gavin Millar QC, representing Times Newspapers, ITN and Sky, had previously told the court that the Met had not presented a “clear or compelling” case showing why it could interfere with the journalists’ and media organisations’ rights under Article Ten.
He also raised concerns regarding the “inhibitive nature of production orders on journalistic activity and especially journalistic activity which is neutrally observing and reporting on events in the public interest”.