"Society is at threat if we silence our sources"
A prison officer who lost his freedom, home and livelihood after being jailed for exposing dangerous and life-threatening failures and cutbacks in the British prison system has spoken out over the “chilling effect” that his case has had on press freedoms in the UK.
The case of Robert Norman, who was jailed for 20 months in 2015 as part of Operation Elveden, has dire consequences for public safety, freedom of speech and the very future of Britain’s free press, supporters and Robert said as a crowdfunding appeal was launched to pay for previous legal costs incurred at the Crown Court.
In a seminar held by Garden Court Chambers to mark the launch of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, distinguished speakers including Sun reporter Stephen Moyes outlined how the case fatally undermines the historic protection of journalists’ sources in Britain. Garden Court Chambers also represented Robert at Crown Court and the Court of Appeal in 2016.
Reliving a traumatic dawn raid on his house by 16 police officers, and an ensuing court struggle that accrued defence costs which forced Robert to sell his family home, the prison officer of 20 years outlined his motives for speaking to the press.
“Would I go through this again? To protect staff and prisoners? Yes I would. Because my contact with the press ensured that the dangers we faced as prison officers became known to the public. This should not be happening, and should never happen to anyone again for telling the truth. Every warning I made is coming true about the prison service. It is falling apart. It is imploding,” said Robert.
Robert was convicted of the 13th century law “committing misconduct in a public office” while working at HMP Belmarsh, after admitting being paid £10,000 for passing information to reporter Stephen Moyes between 30 April 2006 and 1 May 2011. Norman was one of 34 public officials convicted after News International (now News UK) and Trinity Mirror decided to share details of confidential payments made to sources with the Met Police.
Henry Blaxland QC of Garden Court Chambers, made clear that Robert’s initial contact with Stephen was clearly made to draw attention to issues that needed public attention – specifically dangerous staffing shortages at HMP Belmarsh. Henry added that payment by a newspaper to a source of information is an absolutely standard and accepted practice.
Indeed, throughout history, newspaper sources have zealously protected their sources – as police authorities pay and protect informants – but in Robert’s case Trinity Mirror and News International (now called News UK) took the unique step of “voluntary disclosure” of his name, and others, to avoid corporate prosecutions. Operation Elveden between 2011 and 2016 also resulted in 33 journalists being arrested and/or charged, including Stephen Moyes, but none were convicted.
Lucie Wibberley, Barrister, Garden Court Chambers, said the political context for the case underlines a duty for us all to turn back “a regressive tide”.
“The duties of the state and its obligations to the individual were enshrined in the post-war legislation that founded the welfare state. When the state starts prosecuting public servants for telling the truth about our public services, that is as good an example as any of all that has gone wrong since.”
Keir Monteith, the barrister who represented Robert at the Court of Appeal, said the main implication of Robert’s case was a “chilling effect” on whistleblowing in the public interest. “Not so long ago police had to go to court to ask for the disclosure of journalists’ source details. It didn’t happen very often. When police made an application for discovery 99 out of 100 times the court upheld the source’s right to remain anonymous. … That all changed with Operation Elveden.”
The precedent set means “media businesses deciding what sources to be turned over to the police”, and that police can now bypass the courts by “alleging serious criminal acts by sources. … The case of Norman gives the police the green light to make search requests and provides no source protection if the newspaper rolls over to the state’s demands.”
Tim Crook, Professor in Media and Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London, and chair of the Chartered Institute of Journalists’ Professional Practices Board, used current events to outline the threats to public safety if no public officials feel protected in whistle-blowing.
“Would anybody seriously argue against a source working in public safety being paid £10,000 by a media organisation if their information had been able to prevent the Grenfell Tower disaster that claimed 71 lives?”, asked Tim. “[This case] has catastrophically undermined the democratic necessity of protecting journalist sources.”
Stephen Moyes said that nothing Robert had ever told him was ever exaggerated, and that nonetheless everything was seen by the prison service prior to publication. “Protecting sources is drilled into journalists from our first day of training, because they are our lifeblood … Protection of sources is a basic cornerstone of press freedom.”
Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford concluded the seminar by noting that “society is at threat if we silence our sources”.
Garden Court Chambers is now gathering resources through crowdfunding to pay Robert’s legal costs, incurred during the original crown court proceedings, but will continue to act pro bono, instructed by Powell Spencer Solicitors, for Robert's appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Notes for editors:
- Further details of the crowdfunding appeal can be found here: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/justice-for-robert-norman
- For further details on this story, please contact Craig Guthrie at MD Communications (firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 20 3475 3727)
- Lucie Wibberley and Keir Monteith, who both represented Robert at the Court of Appeal, are available for long- and short-form written comment on the subject.