Journalist wins right to keep notes from police

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The Independent Online

A journalist yesterday won a legal battle against a court order to surrender to police his notes of an interview with a loyalist charged with murder in Northern Ireland.

A journalist yesterday won a legal battle against a court order to surrender to police his notes of an interview with a loyalist charged with murder in Northern Ireland.

In what was regarded as a victory for media rights, the Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice, Sir Robert Carswell, ruled in the High Court in Belfast that Ed Moloney was not required to hand over his notes.

The material had been sought by detectives headed by John Stevens, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, investigating the 1989 murder by loyalists of Catholic solicitor Pat Finucane.

Mr Moloney, northern editor of the Dublin Sunday Tribune,had an interview with William Stobie, an Ulster Defence Association activist in 1990. The Stevens team charged Mr Stobie in June with the Finucane murder. A few days later, Mr Moloney ran a story detailing his interview and the Stevens team got court order for him to hand over his notes.

During a court appearance by Mr Stobie he admitted supplying guns for the Finucane killing, and confessed he had been an informer for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He said he had given RUC detectives a full account of his activities.

While the Moloney case was being fought through the courts Mr Stobie was granted bail, a rarity in murder cases. Mr Moloney then faced the possibility of being imprisoned for not handing over his notes while the man charged with murder had been freed.

Mr Moloney was yesterday freed from the requirement to hand over his notes and was awarded costs. Sir Robert said the judge had misapprehended police evidence or had adopted an incorrect test in making his decision.

He added: "Police have to show something more than a possibility that the material will be of some use. They must establish that there are reasonable grounds for believing the material is likely to be of substantial value to the investigation. Police evidence does not, in our judgment, start to meet that criterion."

Mr Moloney, who always said he would go to prison rather than surrender his notes, said outside the court: "This decision vindicated our decision to resist this attempt to confiscate my notes. It will make the authorities think twice before they try to do this against a journalist again."

He said the decision raised very serious questions about the way the Stevens team had conducted their investigations into the Finucane murder. A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard said: "It's our duty in conducting the investigation into the murder of Patrick Finucane to gather evidence to support a prosecution case.

"It was our view that in the unusual circumstances of this present case where William Stobie had given permission for Mr Moloney to describe all the facts there is no source to protect and making an application was the proper course of action for us to take. We obviously accept the court's decision and our inquiries continue."

*Former US Senator George Mitchell returned to Belfast yesterday for a final push aimed at squaring the circle on arms decommissioning and ending the long impasse which has prevented the emergence of a new cross-community government. The general feeling is that the talks will be wound up by the weekend, either with success or in failure.

Catch-all reason for disclosure in dispute

Ed Moloney's victory in the Northern Ireland High Court follows a recent judicial trend towards accepting journalists' assertions that they have a duty to protect their sources, writes Robert Verkaik, Legal Correspondent.

The police can order a journalist to produce interview notes or other information if there is an issue of national security at stake, if such disclosure would prevent a crime or, most commonly, if disclosure is in the "interest of justice". It is this last provision that has caused most concern among lawyers and journalists.

The question of what constitutes the "interest of justice" is expected to be tested further when the English courts decide whether Tony Harndon, a Telegraph journalist, should be forced to give evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Mr Harndon, who interviewed soldiers who were involved, has destroyed his notes.