27 March marks the anniversary of Goodwin v UK, an important decision which protects journalists from being forced to reveal their anonymous sources.
Mr Bill Goodwin was a journalist. In November 1989, Mr Goodwin received a call from a source, who wished to remain anonymous, with information about a company called Tetra. The information came from a confidential document that had disappeared from Tetra’s offices one day earlier, and revealed the company to be in serious financial trouble.
Seeking to protect itself, Tetra obtained a UK court order to prevent the information from being published. The court also ordered Mr Goodwin to reveal the name of his source. Mr Goodwin refused to do so, and was fined £5,000.
Mr Goodwin took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that being punished for refusing to reveal his source violated his right to free expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention. He was successful.
The Court emphasised the important role of free expression and the free press in a democratic society. The Court said that protecting journalists’ sources is crucial for press freedom, since many people will not come forward with information of public importance unless they feel sure that their identity will be protected.
The importance of Goodwin today
With press freedom facing an unprecedented threat in Europe and across the world, the decision in Goodwin and the principles that it stands for have never been more important. In February 2017, US President Donald Trump took aim at journalists for using anonymous sources after a series of leaks from within his own administration. Back in the UK, in March 2017 police were granted permission to raid the home of a Scottish journalist after he took pictures of an argument outside a court.
The European Court of Human Rights in Goodwin called the press a ‘watchdog’ for the people. The Court feared that this function would be put in danger if journalists could be forced to reveal their sources. It said:
Protection of journalists’ sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom… Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest… and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected.
If journalists cannot guarantee to sources that their anonymity will be protected, many will simply not come forward and the press’s role as a watchdog will be diminished. It is vital that journalists can rely on anonymous sources to be able to report on matters in the public interest. The freedom to receive and share information and ideas is fundamental to a democratic society.
To learn more about freedom of the press:
- Read our feature: seven important fighters for press freedom.
- Learn more about how human rights protect the free press.
- Take a look at five examples of when human rights protected press freedom.