A journalist may face a demand to disclose his source over a story about a woman who posted abusive tweets about the parents of missing Madeleine McCann – and was later found dead after being unmasked.
Sky News journalist Martin Brunt has been called to give evidence at the inquest next month into the death last October of 63-year-old mother-of-two Brenda Leyland.
Leyland, of Burton Overy, Leicestershire, was found dead in a hotel room three days after she was confronted as part of an expose by Brunt and Sky News of a vitriolic online campaign against Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, vanished from their holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007.
It was reported at the time that Leyland, using the Twitter handle @sweepyface, had posted thousands of tweets about the McCanns, describing them as the "worst of humankind".
The Times reports that Leicestershire police has written to Sky News on behalf of Coroner Catherine Mason, asking a series of questions including the identity of the person who was behind the dossier of tweets.
Sky News has said that it will protect its source, and has refused to disclose it to the police, arguing that its rights are protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Brunt and Jonathan Levy, director of news gathering and operations at Sky News, are expected to be called to testify at the inquest on 20 March.
Coroners were given new powers to question witnesses in new rules issued 18 months ago, and under Schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
Should she do so, Brunt and Sky News would be able to argue that they did not have to disclose the information because they were protected by section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which says: "No court may require a person to disclose, nor is any person guilty of contempt of court for refusing to disclose, the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime."
Media law specialist Gavin Millar QC told The Times: "I don't think coroners really understand the limits of their powers in terms of trying to force journalists to reveal their sources. It's a specialist area of law and they are not media lawyers.
"As the investigations of coroners become more forensic and more determined, and they are given extra powers to require information from witnesses, they are going to have to start confronting these issues and acquire some learning about the rights of journalists."