The case, brought under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, appeared to set an important legal precedent over the right of journalists to protect their sources, especially in the context of reporting events in Northern Ireland.
It was the first time sections of the Act had been used to require journalists to disclose information. After the hearing, Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, said: 'The cause of investigative journalism in Northern Ireland has been set back a long way.'
Channel 4 and Box had been accused of contempt of court for refusing an earlier order to reveal the name of 'Source A', a self- confessed loyalist terrorist interviewed in the programme The Committee, broadcast in October.
The programme, part of Channel 4's Dispatches current affairs series, alleged serious collusion between members of the security services, loyalist paramilitaries and members of the business and professional community in Northern Ireland to murder people suspected of being members of the IRA.
Box Productions, which made the film, said that the programme would never have been broadcast if it had not reached an agreement with 'Source A' not to reveal his name. It claimed the programme had been in the public interest.
It argued that to reveal the name would expose both 'Source A' and staff at the two companies to the risk of being murdered. Staff were followed and threatened during production and subsequently and, on Special Branch advice, several executives and their families had moved house.
But yesterday Lord Justice Woolf ruled that Channel 4 and Box were not entitled to cite the public interest or the threat of retaliation as a reason for flouting the law. He said the companies should never have made an agreement with the unnamed source in the first place.
The judge said that he recognised that the television companies were in a 'real and genuine' dilemma. 'But they have themselves created the
He continued: 'They should perhaps have given an undertaking that they would not reveal his identity unless they were ordered to do so by the court. It should have been obvious to them that if they were going to act on the information which 'Source A' provided there was at least a substantial risk of an order being made.'
However, Lord Justice Woolf said that because the companies may not have properly appreciated the dangers of giving an undertaking he would impose a 'substantially' smaller fine than he would otherwise have done.
He rejected sequestration of the companies' assets or continuing, rolling fines 'which would have destroyed Channel 4 and Box' because that would not persuade them to change their minds. During the case, counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions said that the court should be prepared to fine Channel 4 out of existence. After the hearing Sir Richard Attenborough, chairman of Channel 4, said the court had not imposed a 'draconian' penalty. 'Channel 4 and Box Productions have faced an impossible dilemma in this case - whether to reveal identities we had undertaken to protect at the risk of human life or to come into contact with the law.
'This judgment shows that the court has recognised the dilemma although they did not in the end accept our view.'
Sean McPhilemy, managing director of Box Productions, said: 'Instead of trying to punish the messengers the Government should listen to the message and hold a full public inquiry.' He added that the issues raised in the programme should be independently investigated.
Politicians, pressure groups and broadcasters last night gave a mixed reaction to the judgment. Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said journalists deserved criticism for putting themselves above the law in the name of investigative journalism.
Bryan Gould, Labour's spokesman for media matters, said the court ruling meant 'whistle-blowers' would virtually disappear.
John Wadham, legal officer of Liberty, formerly the National Council of Civil Liberties, said the ruling dealt a severe blow to the ability of journalists to investigate. 'The important role that journalists play in the scrutiny of the activities of both the police and the state has been severely damaged by this decision.'
John Birt, deputy director-general of the BBC, said: 'The BBC supports Channel 4 in upholding the principle that a journalist's confidential sources should be protected. We regret that English courts place insufficient weight on the benefits of reporting matters that it is in the public interest to know.'
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