The Guardian view on public interest: democracy rests on a free press | Editorial

Last week saw a good day for press freedom. An Old Bailey judge ruled that Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister and journalist, would not have to hand over the notes that he made while looking a decade later into the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings. The West Midlands police had applied for an order under terror laws to force Mr Mullin to reveal the sources for his 1986 book, Error of Judgement, and the television documentaries he later worked on. He declined to do so, and the court backed him. This was the right decision. Protection of journalists’ sources is a cornerstone of the free press in a democracy.

Mr Mullin had, through years of patient digging, exposed significant and important failures by the police that resulted in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of six innocent men. To prove the guilty men were free, Mr Mullin had to find out who they were. To discover this, he had to give assurances that he would not reveal his sources. The court heard that one bomber had confessed to Mr Mullin and that he had notes from speaking to another alleged bomber. Without giving his word to former members of the IRA, it is hard to see how this miscarriage of justice would have been overturned.

The relatives of the victims of the attack deserve sympathy and understanding. The bombs planted by the IRA in two Birmingham pubs killed 21 people. More than 200 were injured, some of whose lives would never be the same again. None of those responsible have been brought to justice. Mr Mullin did voluntarily give the police some redacted notes, but drew a line when officers demanded more.

While the judge, Mark Lucraft QC, said he had “reasonable grounds for believing” Mr Mullin’s notebooks were “likely to be of substantial value” to police, he found in Mr Mullin’s favour. This judgment reaffirms the role of the media as a public watchdog in a democratic society. If journalists were compelled to reveal their sources, it would be much more difficult for them to obtain information and to inform the public of serious matters. A not dissimilar judgment was reached by Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice in 2020 when he quashed police warrants used to search journalists’ homes and workplaces.

Mr Mullin’s work had profound effects on the police. Not only was the notorious West Midlands serious crime squad disbanded, but at least 30 other convictions were quashed. His victory last week is a reminder that journalism must be protected from the baleful gaze of power. Journalists are, as a profession, not always held in the highest of regard. But the best among them take huge risks to expose corruption, hypocrisy or deception in high places. Reporters’ work, prior to the recognition of such wrongdoing, is not always appreciated – especially by those who have an interest in letting sleeping dogs lie.

Our present media landscape has no shortage of critical opinions. Rarer is it to find pursuers of inconvenient facts. When one comes along, as was the case with Mr Mullin, journalism must be suffered by those in authority so that freedom of expression and the right of the public to know are preserved.

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