The Director of Public Prosecutions will attempt to have Channel 4 and the production company Box punished for refusing to name the source for their allegations in the current affairs programme Dispatches that elements within the Royal Ulster Constabulary colluded with loyalist terrorists in the murders of a number of IRA suspects. The informant, who claimed to have been party to the conspiracy, was promised that his anonymity would be protected whatever the cost.
If the application is successful, the companies face the possibility of repeated fines of unlimited size or the sequestration of all their assets until they are bankrupted or the source is named. This is the first occasion on which an attempt has been made to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act to bring pressure on journalists. But similar pressure has been brought on newpapers and television stations under earlier legislation in efforts to force them to produce unpublished or untransmitted pictures of people present during riots. In 1983 the Guardian obeyed a court order and handed over a leaked Ministry of Defence document, thus enabling the police to identify the person who supplied it.
Editors and journalists usually take the view that thay have an absolute duty to protect whistle-blowers. They believe they are acting in the public interest, within a long and honourable tradition and within the spirit of our unwritten constitution. If informants cannot be certain of anonymity, they are unlikely to reveal suspected illegality or impropriety. Their jobs (and in the case of Northern Ireland, their lives) may be at stake.
Editors who give - and honour - pledges of secrecy are not setting themselves above the law, since they are prepared to pay the price imposed by the courts. This paper, for example, stood by its then business correspondent, Jeremy Warner, when he refused to answer questions from Department of Trade and Industry investigators about the sources he used when reporting on an insider trading case. Mr Warner was fined pounds 20,000.
It is reasonable that the media should pay penalties for defying the law - even when defiance is in the public interest. It is unreasonable that the punishment might be an unending series of fines for a single offence. The Government is less preoccupied with secrecy than it was under Mrs Thatcher. Ministers have come to look with rather greater tolerance on whistle-blowing in the public sector. They have offered new procedures for those in the NHS and the secret services who believe their superiors are acting wrongly. A similar tolerance should be extended to news gatherers. David Mellor, the minister responsible for the media, should turn his attention away from privacy legislation and concentrate on suggesting changes to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other laws to ensure that they can no longer be used to threaten the existence of offending television companies or newspapers.