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February 11, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:29am

Sunday World investigative journalist does not have to reveal sources, Northern Ireland court rules

By PA Media Lawyer

An alleged dissident republican on trial with two other men in Northern Ireland has failed in an attempt to force a newspaper and investigative journalist to reveal their sources on which two stories were based.

Lawyers representing defendant Alex McCrory had asked Justice Colton to order Sunday World Newspapers Ltd, reporter Paula Mackin and former editor James McDowell to hand over all notes and records of Mackin’s meetings with sources, including one described as a “security source”.

The bid to disclose sources related to two stories which appeared in the newspaper, the first in February 2015 and the second in November that year.

They also wanted original versions and all “copies of recordings” referred to in the first article and copies of a “15-page disclosure document” which was mentioned in the November story.

Finally, McRory’s lawyers also wanted Mackin to attend his criminal trial and give evidence about the material.

Justice Colton rejected the application in a decision handed down last week.

Mackin had explained, he said, that she had met sources at a safe place, and went to the encounters without taking a mobile phone, writing materials, or a dictation machine or other recording device so as to avoid the risk that a source’s identity might be inadvertently disclosed.

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She also had not made any notes after the meetings – again to avoid the risk of inadvertently disclosing the source’s identity.

Instead, her reports were based on her memory of recordings she had heard and documents she had been allowed to read at the meetings.

Mackin had refused to disclose her sources, because they were confidential, as was the material they had provided – and there was also a risk to her life and the lives of her sources if she did unmask them.

Justice Colton said he was satisfied that Mackin had been truthful in her evidence, although he agreed that there was “some degree of overstatement” in the way the articles were written.

But he was persuaded, on the basis of her evidence, that there were no relevant documents, notes or recordings which Mackin or anyone else could disclose.

“I consider it entirely credible that a source wishing to disclose the material referred to in the article would insist on doing so in the manner described by Ms Mackin,” the judge said.

Sunday World Northern Ireland editor Richard Sullivan said after Justice Colton’s decision was delivered: “This is an important day for investigative journalists and a recognition by the court of protection of confidential journalistic sources and source material.

“Investigative journalism is the hallmark of what the Sunday World does – in this judgement the court has upheld, recognised and preserved the right of a free press to responsibly and impartially report allegations of criminality and the important right of Sunday World readers to receive information about serious criminality and of the right of journalists working in Northern Ireland to investigate crime without fear.

“Justice Colton delivered a judgment that recognises the public’s right and the media’s right to freedom of expression.”

He went on: “But the judgment is more important than that – it protects confidential journalistic sources and the information they communicate in confidence and anonymously, which helps us as the Sunday World to inform the public in Northern Ireland about serious criminal activity.

“The court did recall today that freedom of expression is a constitutional right in our democratic society and that protection of journalistic sources is a foundation of that right and protecting these fundamental rights enable the press to carry out their duties as public watchdog.”

Picture: Sunday World

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