Saturday. 19 April 2014

Secure dropbox: Tell us in confidence


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Commentary: why I gave evidence in trial of senior police officer

‘News International has betrayed more sources than anybody in history of journalism’

I do feel sympathy for Casburn, who I believe was sacrificed by big business, intent on protecting its reputation

One of the first things taught to me as a cub reporter was always to protect the source of a story.

Four times during my 30-year journalistic career, I have been quizzed by the police about the identity of a confidential source. But I have never breached this tenet of journalism.

So, what led me to the witness box at Southwark crown court last month in the trial of Detective Chief Inspector April Casburn?

One Saturday morning in September 2010, I was working on the newsdesk of the News of the World when I took a call from a woman who refused to give her name and described herself as a senior police officer.

She said that she wanted to sell inside information on a newly-launched phone-hacking investigation into the newspaper. She gave me her mobile number.

My immediate reaction was that this was a sting or crank call. She could hardly be a senior police officer in reality, I thought.

I spoke to the news editor, Ian Edmondson, who was also suspicious. He told me to e-mail the details to him and the crime editor, Lucy Panton. I did this, and thought no more of it.

I had forgotten about the call until the police contacted me about it 18 months later. The e-mail had been passed to the police by News International, which owned the News of the World until its closure in 2011.

It is one of many confidential e-mails handed over by News International’s Management and Standards Committee (MSC), resulting in arrests of both public officials and journalists.

The MSC was established to counter damaging claims of a cover-up at News International over phone hacking.

But I believe that it has gone too far, betraying more confidential sources than any other body or person in the history of journalism.

The MSC’s betrayal threatens the confidence of any future source who is thinking of going to News International’s four newspapers and hoping to remain anonymous. It also threatens the ability of reporters on the publisher’s titles – The Sun, The Times and their sister Sundays – to operate effectively in the future. Indeed, the MSC’s actions jeopardise the work of all journalists.

When I arrived at Snow Hill police station in central London, I was presented with the e-mail that I had written in September 2010.

I was told that I was a witness. I expected some support from News International, which had put me in this position, but none was forthcoming.

I turned to the National Union of Journalists. Its deputy general secretary, Barry Fitzpatrick, told me that News International had “totally compromised” me by disclosing the e-mail, and that I had no choice but to give evidence to confirm that I had written it.

As advised, I gave evidence in the trial only to confirm that I had written the e-mail. As I said in court, my memory of the call was vague. I could only rely on what I had written in the e-mail.

Casburn, a counter-terrorism officer, was not trying to sell a story when she rang in on that Saturday morning. The News of the World would plainly not publish a story about the new phone-hacking investigation mounted against it, adding fuel to the fire that would eventually engulf it.

Casburn was seeking reward in return for information that might help a large corporation defend itself against damaging allegations, rather than for a story to be published by a newspaper.

She was convicted last month of misconduct in public office, and was today jailed for 15 months.

However, I do feel sympathy for Casburn, who I believe was sacrificed by big business, intent on protecting its reputation and share price.
 
And, in the process, News International broke the first rule of journalism by failing to protect a confidential source.

Tim Wood is a commissioning editor for Exaro. He was a reporter on the News of the World from 1997 until its closure in 2011, and was on its newsdesk from 2004.

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Article Comments

You did the right thing, but I agree with your comments about NI's behaviour. Best wishes Clifford Longley

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