Leading Article: Necessary safeguards

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CHANNEL 4 and Box Productions have reason to count themselves lucky, for they would seem to be off the hook. Had Lord Justice Woolf not adopted a moderate and pragmatic attitude to the action for contempt against the companies brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions, they could by now have been under sequestration and off the air, or on the road to bankruptcy as a result of rolling fines of limitless size.

The logic of any attempt to force people or institutions to purge themselves of contempt must surely involve the continuation of penalties until the offenders are prepared to bow to the court. On this occasion, however, Channel 4 and Box have in effect been allowed to buy for pounds 75,000 the right to keep from the police the name of the principal informant used in a controversial Dispatches programme. His allegations (which the police strongly contest) concerned a loyalist conspiracy to murder republican activists in Northern Ireland. 'Source A' claimed that the plot involved loyalist terrorists and members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Yet those involved in investigative journalism will almost certainly have reason to regret that the High Court ducked a confrontation with a powerful national television channel. It would have drawn attention to the dangerous state of the law, in the most advantageous of circumstances for the media. Channel 4 and Box were not merely protecting the career of their informant. They also claim to have been protecting his life, and the lives of the programme makers.

Some consolation has been taken from the apparently generous recognition by Lord Justice Woolf of the 'real and genuine' dilemma faced by the progamme makers. Less attention has been paid to his further point: the journalists 'themselves created the dilemma' by giving their word improperly to their source. The court was, he added, being 'substantially' more lenient than might have been expected as those involved may not have appreciated the gravity of their actions.

The implication was clear: this was the first occasion on which the Prevention of Terrorism Act had been used in an attempt to force journalists to name their sources. But now reporters and programme makers know beyond any doubt that they have no special privileges, even when they might reasonably argue that they are acting in the public interest by revealing wrong-doing. The next group that comes before the courts in similar circumstances can at best expect the imposition of an absolutely swingeing penalty. At worst, sequestration or repeated, escalating fines could destroy the company.

Whatever the merits of the particular programme, whistle-blowing is a necessary safeguard in any society, and it is right that editors and programme makers occasionally give (and abide by) guarantees of anonymity. But the media are not above the law. There are two disturbing features of the Prevention of Terrorism Act as interpreted by Lord Justice Woolf. The first is that courts retain the option of imposing repeated or destructive punishments for single acts of contempt. The second is that it is not possible to plead public interest in mitigation. The law should be amended to meet these points. Until these changes are made, it is, alas, likely that many investigative journalists will steer clear of contentious areas such as Northern Ireland.