Earlier this month, the media trade magazine Press Gazette launched the ‘Save Our Sources’ campaign to prevent public authorities spying on journalists’ phone records.
The campaign followed revelations that the Metropolitan Police (the Met) had secretly obtained the mobile phone records of Tom Newton Dunn, political editor for The Sun, in order to identify whistleblowers who had exposed an argument between police officers and former Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell back in 2012; in what became known as the ‘Plebgate’ scandal.
According to the closing report of Operation Alice, the Met’s investigation into the scandal, Newton Dunn was threatened with arrest after refusing to co-operate with the police. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) later threw out the case against him.
The Met was not deterred, and made successful requests for incoming call data from The Sun’s newsdesk for calls between 07:30 and 09:30 on September 20 2012 and for Newton Dunn’s mobile phone records. The information was obtained from a telecoms provider without the knowledge of The Sun’s parent company, News UK.
Two alleged police sources were identified as a result.
PC James Glanville, one of three arrested following the release of Newton Dunn’s phone data, was found to have searched for The Sun on Google using his mobile and had later called the newspaper at 09:20 before coming in contact with Newton Dunn. Glanville and another officer, PC Keith Wallis, were sacked for gross misconduct on February 26 2014.
Five phone numbers, obtained from the newsdesk’s call records, included one which had been made by a nurse who shared a house with PC Susan Johnson. On July 3 2012, Johnson was arrested on suspicion of misconduct in a public office. On May 21 2014, she was sacked.
According to Press Gazette, this occurred despite an earlier CPS statement dropping all charges against Glanville, Johnson and Weatherley.
It also emerged this month that, under new official guidelines, members of the Armed Forces must notify a press officer if they encounter “journalists or other members of the news media in a social setting (whether work-related or not)”.
Under the rules, personnel “must immediately notify […] media staff and provide a written account of the contact”, including interactions with family members who work in the media.
Both events set a dangerous precedent for individuals wishing to speak out against corruption, injustices and misconduct within their organisations.
Despite the passing of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and groups such as The Whistler and Whistleblowers UK, legal protection for whistleblowers remains largely ineffective and fails to protect the conscientious few who wish to alert the public to wrongdoing.
To suggest that anyone willing to blow the whistle will do so regardless of potential risks to themselves ignores the grim reality suffered by the vast majority who speak out. Threats of job losses, coupled with lengthy and expensive legal campaigns to clear one’s name, often cause irreparable emotional and financial damage to whistleblowers, serving as a clear deterrent to others who dare stray from the party line.
Under this stress, relationships often collapse and it is hard to regain a semblance of normal life.
Dr Kim Holt, an NHS whistleblower who was removed from her clinic and put on paid leave for three years after warning about shortfalls in care in the clinic where ‘Baby P’ was treated, said after a formal apology to her from Great Ormond Street Hospital: “I have been vindicated. Many others never got their careers back.”
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Channel 4 in 2010 found that 170 doctors across 71 NHS trusts in England and Wales had agreed to confidentiality clauses in severance agreements. These ‘gagging orders’ appeared in 90 per cent of all agreements, totalling almost £3million in pay-offs.
Nor is the University exempt. In October 2013, it emerged that the University had issued its annual grant of £2.3million to EUSA on condition that 48 hours’ notice was given to University management about ‘detrimental’ comments concerning the institution.
On February 28 2014, in the midst of The Student’s investigation into the Speculative Society, an email was sent to Law School staff stating: “could we please ask that if any staff are contacted by or have contact with The Student about this issue, to please forward the communication to Rob Tomlinson [Head of Media and Communications].
“Several members of staff have been contacted by The Student […] and it is now a matter that the central University communications team are handling.”
Despite University assurances that this was to deal with the volume of “overlapping correspondence” sent by The Student, the message reflects a worrying trend of restricting the freedom of individuals to speak out against the institutions they inhabit.
As such, without greater protections granted to whistleblowers, public bodies cannot be held accountable to those they were established to serve.