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July 13, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:26am

Prison source revealed to police over payments by Mirror loses European court appeal

By Charlotte Tobitt

Prison officer Robert Norman, whose identity as a confidential source was given to police by Trinity Mirror (now Reach), has lost an appeal against his conviction at the European Court of Human Rights.

Norman (pictured) was jailed in 2015 for 20 months after being found guilty of the centuries-old common law offence of misconduct in a public office. He was one of 34 public officials convicted under Operation Elveden and lost his job, home and savings because of the case.

He appealed against his prosecution and conviction but the reasons given by an Old Bailey judge, which had already been upheld by the UK’s Court of Appeal, have now been deemed “relevant and sufficient” six years on by the European court.

Norman first contacted the Daily Mirror, which he chose because it was deemed “union-friendly”, in 2006 because he was concerned about conditions at Belmarsh high-security prison, where he was health and safety official for the Prison Officers’ Association.

He was not paid for the first story but was subsequently paid £10,684 for 40 pieces of information over five years.

In 2012, as the Met Police began making widespread arrests of Sun journalists and their sources, Trinity Mirror made its own search for evidence of payments by journalists to public officials and volunteered the information to the Met Police under a memorandum of understanding.

Trinity Mirror disclosure ‘truly voluntary’

Norman complained in his appeal that the publisher’s disclosure had been forced by “improper pressure” from the police and “therefore been akin to the compelled disclosure by the State of his name as a journalistic source”.

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His lawyer Keir Monteith had argued Norman’s conviction undermined the historic protection of journalists’ sources and created a new principle of “media businesses deciding what sources to be turned over to the police”.

However, the European court unanimously ruled Norman’s claim inadmissible. It said the terms of the MoU had allowed Trinity Mirror to refuse to disclose information on Article 10 (freedom of expression) grounds, including the right to protect journalistic sources.

[Read more: Prison officer ‘turned over’ to police by Trinity Mirror goes to European Court to fight for right to anonymity for journalists’ sources]

Trinity Mirror would have had access to legal advice and it was “inconceivable” it would not have given careful consideration when deciding whether to disclose the information, the judgment said.

The court, therefore, decided the disclosure had been “truly voluntary” and that Norman had failed to show it had been forced by police or that police interfered with his Article 10 rights.

Norman’s other objection under Article 10, that his prosecution and conviction violated his right to protection as a journalistic source, was unanimously ruled against.

The court said his leaks had caused serious harm to prisoners, staff and public confidence in the prison and that there was no public interest in most of the information he disclosed to the Mirror.

The stories included the suicide of a prisoner, the suspension of a prison chaplain for inappropriate behaviour with prisoners, the demands of Abu Hamza on the prison service, attacks and plots to kill staff, and a sexual relationship between a female warder and a prisoner.

The judgment also agreed with the Old Bailey judge who sentenced Norman that he was not motivated by public interest concerns but by money and an “intense dislike” of the prison governor. It said that as a trade union representative he would have had official channels to raise his concerns.

‘Outdated and unclear’ offence

Norman also argued his prosecution was in violation of Article 7 (no punishment without law) of the European Convention on Human Rights because he could not have foreseen that his actions would lead to his criminal prosecution for misconduct in a public office offence.

The Law Commission has repeatedly called for the “outdated and unclear” offence of misconduct in public office to be reformed.

The European court agreed with the trial judge who had said because Norman asked for some of the cheques received to be made out to his son he knew it was wrong and in breach of his professional duties.

It said the previous court judgments could not have been “unforeseeable or surprising” since the consequences of Norman’s leaks were so “serious”.

It said those consequences included “the suspicion that had fallen on innocent members of staff as a result of the leaks by an unknown source, the damage to prisoners demonised in the press and the general enmity and mistrust that the leaks had caused both within the prison population and between prisoners and staff; and that the corruption of a prison officer on the scale present in the applicant’s case had undermined public confidence in the prison service”.

The court also dismissed Norman’s argument that he should only have faced disciplinary proceedings from his employer, saying “conduct did not fall outside the scope of the criminal law merely because it also constituted a disciplinary offence”.

Sun journalist Stephen Moyes, who arranged the payments for Norman’s stories while working at the Daily Mirror and then the News of the World, has supported him throughout his legal battle. Moyes himself faced a criminal prosecution, which was later dropped among several others after the conviction of News of the World crime editor Lucy Panton was quashed.

Moyes told Press Gazette: “Mr Norman has continued his legal fight with the quiet dignity he has shown throughout this entire sorry ordeal.

“We both agree that his stories were entirely in the public interest and would have remained hushed up by the authorities had he not acted as whistleblower in a bid to improve safety and conditions for prison staff and the public.”

Speaking to Press Gazette in 2016 Norman said he accepted that he breached the terms of his employment but had no idea he was committing a potential criminal offence.

He said: “You’re a source and journalists are supposed to look after their sources.

“They (Trinity Mirror/Reach) just gave me up to get themselves out of a corporate prosecution. They even sold Stephen out, their own reporter. It doesn’t seem right.

“He went through the same two years of hell waiting to hear if he would be charged that I did.

“I think the way myself and other whistleblowers have been treated is absolutely atrocious.”

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