Archive for the ‘Sally Murrer’ tag

Defending the public interest defence

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We have to hope that Christopher Galley’s public interest defence – if true – is successful. Galley has said, through his lawyer, that he leaked numerous documents to Conservative MP Damian Green because he believed they were in the public interest. He did not, he says, receive money for the documents, nor was he ‘groomed’ by Green as a plant in the Home Office. Damian Green has reiterated these claims (according to a ‘senior Tory source’).

Making this defence does not make Galley immune from prosecution. The police can still take action. However, he has not been charged under the Official Secrets Act and has, to date, only been questioned on suspicion of ‘misconduct in public life’.

His public interest defence is, in these circumstances, not just valid but valuable. We need more successful public interest cases based on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in order to create precedents. Only through numerous precedents will the government and police recognise that it is legitimate for people to release and publish information that is genuinely in the public interest – no matter how embarrassing it is. The government is still entirely justified in taking disciplinary action, but may feel less inclined to pursue criminal proceeedings. Plus, with more precedents, journalists will feel more confident investigating awkward stories without fearing they will be hauled into the police station and threatened with life imprisonment. 

These are not idle fears. The journalist Sally Murrer went through a horrific ordeal simply for doing her job. Murrer, a 50-year-old single mum with three children who works part time at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested at her home 19 months ago. She was held at the police station, strip searched, told she might face life in jail, and then prosecuted for over a year. The charge was the same as that levelled at Damian Green – ‘aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public life’. Murrer had been given information by a police source and then published it in the local paper. Not information that might have threatened national security. Not information that could have impaired the investigation of a serious crime. No, these were simply local stories about pub fights and drug dealers: ‘One concerned a local footballer involved in a brawl, another about the death of a former drug offender and a third, which was never published, involved an Islamist released early from prison’ (Sally Murrer, The Daily Mail).

The case against Murrer eventually collapsed because her lawyer successfully defended her on the basis of Article 10 – freedom of expression. But the lengthy ordeal has had a profound effect on Murrer. ‘I tried to keep working,’ she wrote in the Daily Mail last Saturday, ‘but I don’t know if I have the strength to continue as a journalist. I certainly won’t be doing another police story again’.

Of course the government should be free to take disciplinary action against civil servants that leak information – particularly serial leakers. It could – should – have fired Christopher Galley long ago when the Home Office first realised what he was doing. But before the police are called in to take criminal action – and criminal action that seems designed to scare not just the accused but anyone who might be thinking of acting in a similar way – then the public interest defence needs to give them pause.

Written by Martin Moore

December 2nd, 2008 at 2:54 pm

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