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  1. Media Law
October 20, 2016updated 27 Oct 2016 1:20pm

Jailed Daily Mirror prison source loses appeal: Court says publisher willingly gave up union official to police

By Dominic Ponsford

The details of how publishers Trinity Mirror and News UK willingly handed over their public sector sources to the police have been exposed in a Court of Appeal judgment.

The court has rejected the appeal of former prison officer Robert Norman against his conviction for selling stories to the Daily Mirror over a five-year-period.

And it has outlined how Trinity Mirror and News International (now called News UK) sought to avoid corporate prosecutions by giving details of sources and journalists to the Metropolitan Police.

Around 30 public sector sources were convicted of misconduct in public office after disclosures by Trinity Mirror and News International. And some 34 journalists were arrested and/or charged (but only one was convicted at trial).

Norman was a prison officer at HMP Belmarsh. He was sentenced to 20 months prison in June 2015 and had to sell his house in order to pay for the cost of his defence.

In his appeal he argued that his conviction should fall because the Met Police applied improper pressure on Trinity Mirror in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention (which protects freedom of expression). He also argued that his conduct did not reach the high level of seriousness needed for the offence of misconduct in public office.

The judgment states that Norman joined the prison service in 1992 and was “of exemplary good character”.

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He was health and safety official for the Prison Officers Association at Belmarsh and the judgment states that he first approached the Daily Mirror in April 2006 saying the prison was “out of control” because of Islamic gangs. He was not paid for that disclosure, but continued to give stories to Mirror journalist Stephen Moyes over the next five years.

For some 40 pieces of information he was paid £10,684.

Moyes himself faced trial for conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office as a result of disclosures by Trinity Mirror, but the case against him was dropped in April 2015.

The stories Norman sold included:

  • The suicide of a prisoner
  • Suspension of a prison chaplain for inappropriate behaviour with prisoners
  • The demands Abu Hamza had made on the prison service
  • Costs incurred keeping Ipswich murder Stephen Wright in isolation
  • A sexual relationship between a female warder and a prisoner
  • Excessive expenditure on a staff party off site
  • Attacks and plots to kill prison staff
  • The prison failing security inspections.

The judgment notes that News International provided emails to the Met Police (MPS) which indicated Sun journalists had paid police officers for information.

The judgment states: “One of the motives of News International in co-operating was a desire to avoid corporate charges, although the MPS made no promise, express or implied, that it would not face such charges. Once MPS had formally put News International on notice that corporate charges were being contemplated, it became more reluctant to co-operate and give disclosure. Nevertheless it did continue to make disclosure thereafter.”

Trinity Mirror’s national press division MGN began its own investigation into payments by journalists to public officials in July 2012.

The judgment reveals that a third-party company searched MGN email databases for 68 words which could imply such payments.

MGN agreed a Memorandum of Understanding that it would provide the material to the Met Police.

The judgment states: “Under that procedure, MGN provided material which identified the appellant as the recipient of payments from MGN.”

The Met Police then sought a production order which found that Norman was also paid for stories after reporter Moyes moved to the News of the World in 2010.

News International then provided details of payments it had made to Norman.

Rejecting the appeal, Mr Justice Popplewell and Mr Justice Goss said there was no evidence Trinity Mirror was pressured by the Met Police into giving up its source. They said the company did so willingly.

They said: “The police made no threat or promise, express or implied, about the bringing of a prosecution against the company or companies or their top management.

“The police were seeking voluntary disclosure under the terms of the MOU, clause 8 of which made clear that MGN retained the right to invoke article 10 grounds for refusing disclosure.

“MGN was a large organisation with access to in house and external legal advice.

“Given the general stance of newspapers to protect the identity of their sources, it is inconceivable that MGN did not give careful consideration to whether to make disclosure to the MPS in the context of the publicity which Operation Elveden and the Leveson Inquiry were attracting.”

The judgment states that Trinity Mirror’s cooperation with the police was “truly voluntary”.

It states: “There was no misconduct by the MPS in receiving voluntary disclosure from the newspapers or in acting upon it. The fact that it was disclosed by a suspect, in the sense that the MPS had not ruled out a corporate charge against either newspaper does nothing to ‘taint it’.”

The judges ruled that the fact Norman had accepted money for stories over a prolonged period meant he had committed the serious criminal offence he was charged with.

They said: “Different considerations might arise in the case of a genuine whistleblower seeking to act in the public interest, where the only wrongdoing might lie in breach of obligations to the employer rather than in the circumstances of the communication to the journalist. In the appellant’s case the expression whose freedom he claims to be protected is itself serious criminal conduct.”

The judgment claims Norman’s actions were sufficiently serious to warrant his prosecution and conviction because:

  • they “undermined public confidence in the prison service”
  • Allowed national press reporting of “internal prison affairs” in the national press thereby “undermining trust and morale”
  • And his disclosures inhibited “constructive internal criticism”.

Moyes told Press Gazette in 2015: “I am dismayed that Robert Norman – a man I knew to be a senior union rep for the Prison Officers Association, and a whistleblower – is still going to trial.

“From 2006 when he rang the Daily Mirror after exhausting negotiations with the prison Governor and local MPs, he was hell-bent on highlighting mismanagement, waste of taxpayers’ funds, threats to his members, and stories that were massively in the public interest.

“Without him a number of important security and safety exposés would have been hushed up – by the same negligent prison management who were responsible for them.

“His concerns – of sweeping staff cuts at Belmarsh when they were at full capacity, threatening the lives of warders, inmates, and the general public – were backed up by reports and statistics from the independent prison inspector and charities such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“I didn’t consider his union role to be any different from the full-time reps I spent so much time with in my years working on a Trinity Mirror weekly paper covering Heathrow – raising public awareness of workers’ rights and sticking one over management if necessary.”

Moyes said that all Norman’s stories were confirmed before publication by the Ministry of Justice press office.

He said: “There was never a complaint or question mark against them.”

Trinity Mirror and News UK have consistently declined to offer any comment or justification as to why they gave information about their confidential journalistic sources to the police.

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