From the High Court to the steppe

He went to Mongolia to escape the legal hell he's been in since writing a story on Ian Brady in 1999. But for Robin Ackroyd, the case isn't over yet
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The Independent Online

et me tell you about my horses. I had five: Scamper, Dash, Spot, Sabre and Lightning - probably the slowest horse in Mongolia. Their names sound like Santa's reindeer, but there was a reason for each and I was sticking with them.

I arrived in the country with no maps, accommodation or contacts, and ended up riding 800km across open steppe and through mountain passes and forests populated by bears, wolves and biting flies. Oh - and the odd escaped prisoner.

Are we on the travel pages? No we are not. This is what you do when your reporting career is wrecked. You find a new direction. You summon up all your energy and imagination and do something different. I've worked for years as a crime reporter and investigative journalist, but a long-running legal battle has put paid to my work. Someone else will have to pick up the baton, if they dare.

I went to Mongolia to get away from a seemingly endless round of court hearings, but ostensibly to do research on Genghis Khan, who unified the country's tribes 800 years ago this year. I rode where he rode. And I met some of the most hospitable, amusing people I have ever encountered. I lived with them, ate with them, wrestled with them, and I'm hopig it will make a good book. It was some expedition: grimy, a logistical nightmare but nothing compared with the attrition I have endured over the last six years.

Being sued by an arm of the state is not nice. You do your best to protect your position, but it's not easy. Thankfully, I have had the unstinting support of the National Union of Journalists. For me, the battle has been about the protection of confidential journalistic sources. For investigative journalists the prospect of being ordered to reveal one by a court fundamentally affects their ability to work. I don't reveal confidential sources.

The saga started in December 1999, when the Daily Mirror published a two-page spread highlighting the hunger strike of the Moors murderer Ian Brady at a high-security mental institution, Ashworth on Merseyside. Most of the information came from me but I was not bylined. The authorities took legal action, saying that the article breached patient confidentiality. The paper fought hard but lost at every stage of the case and was refused a stay on the order that it reveal its source - me - pending an appeal to Europe. I came forward. I didn't want a legal battle, I said. But I was the paper's "intermediary", and I would fight if I had to.

Most of you won't have received a writ. It didn't bother me too much at the time because Ashworth had been firmly recommended for closure by the Fallon judicial inquiry, which had been partly prompted by my earlier articles and a whistle-blowing patient. The inquiry concluded: "We have no confidence in the ability of Ashworth Hospital to flourish under any management. It should close."

The mismanagement of Ashworth is one of the best examples, in my mind, as to why investigative journalism should be allowed to thrive. I found myself speaking to officials at the Department of Health, and sometimes ministers, telling them of malpractice I had uncovered and of which they were unaware. A minister changed government policy on children visiting high-security hospitals after I informed the department of continuing concerns. I talked an inmate at another high-security hospital, Rampton, off hunger strike. I was faxed his medical records to help me.

Within months of the judicial inquiry recommending Ashworth's closure, Brady was forcibly moved from one ward to another by staff wearing riot gear, including helmets, boots and balaclavas. Brady's wrist was injured - an examination later showed a fracture. He went on hunger strike and, about a month later, was force-fed. There were serious questions about the appropriateness of how that was carried out.

My investigation into the facts in the case led to the legal action in which I've been embroiled for the best part of my thirties. I lost a summary judgment application at the High Court in 2002; I would have no trial because of the earlier hearings involving the newspaper. So I was facing an order to reveal my sources within two working days or face contempt proceedings: maximum jail sentence two years; fine unlimited.

I won the right to appeal, then won at the Court of Appeal. A judge called me a "crusading journalist" and said that I had a right to speak in my own defence. However, Ashworth Hospital went to the House of Lords to deny me a trial. It failed.

Last month, at the High Court, more than six years after the article was published, was the first time I had been allowed to speak for myself in court. Ashworth called seven witnesses. I called none. Thankfully, I won, but the authorities were given permission to go to the Court of Appeal. I sincerely hope they don't. Enough time and money has been wasted already.

This case has cast a huge shadow over my life. I've lost count of the legal conferences I've attended, the hearings and preliminary hearings, the hundreds of letters and faxes I've sent and received, the mammoth piles of paperwork and documents I have had to read and analyse, the meetings with MPs and union officials.

I fear for the next person who will have to go through this, unless we adopt a more mature attitude to journalists' efforts to uncover the truth in the public interest. Did I get away from it all in Mongolia? Yes, to a large extent, but even on the steppe, mobile phones work. I was saddling a horse when I received a text giving me dates for my trial. I was not unhappy when, a few days later, I lost my handset.