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A STIRRING VICTORY

05-06-2009

Stirrer editor Adrian Goldberg reports on a vital victory for press freedom, after this website was threatened with legal action by Wolverhampton City Council. As a result, our sources can be more confident than ever that their privacy will be protected.

Late last year the Stirrer Forum was buzzing with rumours that Wolverhampton Council’s new Tory/Lib Dem leadership was planning to scrap the business transformation contract signed with computer firm Axon by the previous Labour administration.

Our contributors’ forecasts proved to be accurate and, in December, the local authority announced it was seeking approval from councillors to withdraw from the deal.

There were several troubling aspects to the story, not least the cost of cancellation to hard-pressed taxpayers; but there was an additional worry too. In an unprecedented move the city’s leadership wanted the report kept confidential and the discussion held in secret session.

That meant reporters and the general public couldn’t know the full ins and outs of a proposal that would end up costing them several million pounds.

We didn’t think that was good enough – especially as the Council had previously denied that the deal was doomed.

Thankfully, one of our regular contributors Carver-y went to the trouble of obtaining the confidential report, which was then copied onto our message board. Shortly afterwards, the item was mysteriously dropped from Council meeting.

That, we thought, was that – until March when we received a letter from a top London lawyer, under instruction from Wolverhampton Council, threatening to take us to the High Court unless we revealed Carver-y’s identity.

It was a request that struck at the very heart of press freedom – if whistleblowers can not expose matters of legitimate public interest without the risk of being identified we might as well all pack up and go home now.

Of course, no self-respecting journalist would ever hand over such details but a small organisation like ours can hardly defend itself against the financial might of a local authority. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of The Stirrer and my own financial status were in jeopardy.

More than that, there was a risk of imprisonment for Contempt in the event that we lost the case and refused to comply with any Court Order to hand over information.

Thankfully, I’m a member of the NUJ and their legal officer Roy Mincoff agreed to take up the case on our behalf, instructing Tamsin Allen of the lawyers Bindmans to help prepare a defence.

Tamsin was superb, drafting a forceful letter arguing that Carver-y was not merely a casual poster on an unsupervised Forum but a legitimate journalistic source publishing with our knowledge – a status which, based on previous case law, gave him/her an additional layer of legal protection.

She also argued that this was a matter of genuine public interest (ie it wasn’t motivated by greed or malice), that Wolverhampton Council had previously denied the Axon deal would be scrapped and that they had waited more than three months from the date of publication to complain.

As a fallback, there was the guarantee of freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention.

After some legal to-ing and fro-ing, Wolverhampton Council - while not conceding the legal point – agreed to drop the case.

We, in turn, pledged that when we have details of confidential legal advice given to Wolverhampton Council, in future, we will give them 48 hours notice before publication.

It should be noted that this would not have prevented us publishing the vast majority of the information provided by Carver-y when we did, or in the way we did.

What’s more, from our point of view the most significant principle – that of trust between this website and its contributors remains intact.

The Stirrer can not and will not betray the confidence of citizen journalists who provide us with information other outlets are too scared to print.

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