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The Sunday Times jails its source

11 March 2013

5:31 PM

11 March 2013

5:31 PM

In a long piece in the last issue of the Sunday Times (£) Isabel Oakeshott, its political editor, wrote of her relationship with Vicky Pryce. She sobbed and sighed. She was full of sympathy. You can almost hear the tears pitter-patter on her keyboard as she describes how Pryce had become a ‘broken woman’.

The reader has to stare hard at her words to realise that Pryce was Oakeshott’s source, and that Oakeshott and her editor John Witherow had handed her over to the police. The eight-month prison sentence Mr Justice Sweeney gave Pryce today followed. Of course it did. Journalists once knew that if you betrayed a source they could end up on the dole, or in prison or, in the most severe circumstances, dead.

Writing in the Spectator last month, I explained:

‘The requirement to protect your sources was the one moral principle journalists had. Self-interest played its part — confidential sources will not speak to reporters if they suspect they will reveal their identities to the police or their employers. But a reporter’s honour mattered as much. You had made a deal with a source. You had given your promise and shaken hands. Your source could lose his or her job or liberty if you broke your word. You had to keep it.’

That was then. To read Oakeshott’s bluster today you would think that Pryce had stabbed her in the back rather than the other way round. Oakeshott describes how Pryce had had the impertinence to talk to the Mail on Sunday as well as the Sunday Times. ‘She had double-crossed me,’ wails the poor victimised thing. ‘While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper…This was an extraordinary betrayal and deeply underhand after everything we had been through together. Our relationship had been based on trust. I had kept my side of the bargain; she had broken hers.’

Oakeshott does not understand that the moral obligations between a journalist and his or her sources flow in one direction only. They are putting their life and liberty in your hands not vice versa. They are free to deny the truth of the stories you print, if that what it takes to keep them in a job or out of prison. They can speak to other journalists; they can do whatever they want. You are in their debt. They are not in yours.

In an couple of paragraphs, which are if anything even more embarrassing, Oakeshott moves on to deal with the tricky question of why the Sunday Times delivered Pryce to the cops. We put up ‘a vigorous fight’ she assures her readers. ‘But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.’

This is not how the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, described it. In a statement issued on October 3 last year, he said that the CPS had advised the police that they needed the confidential information from Pryce in Oakeshott’s possession if they were to send Pryce and Chris Huhne to the dock. In October 2011, the authorities secured a court order for the ‘newspaper to produce material to the police’. The Sunday Times appealed, as it should have done. But, Starmer continued, Witherow and Oakeshott’s resolution soon faded. They did not fight to protect their source ‘but subsequently consented to producing the material in question just before the appeal was due to be heard, on 20 January this year’.

The emails they handed over were crucial, Starmer implied. They ensured there was ‘sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce for perverting the course of justice’.

Journalists once went to prison rather than reveal a source. Now they can’t even go to an appeal court. Instead, Oakeshott’s source is in jail. I asked friends of Pryce to ask her on my behalf if the Sunday Times had sought her permission before it gave detectives what they needed to turn her into ‘a broken woman’.

‘No, it did not,’ came the reply.

My Guardian colleague Marina Hyde said that the lesson of the Sunday Times’ treatment of Pryce was that no one should talk to journalists. Perhaps that is going too far; at least I hope it is. It is not going too far, however, to say that no one in their right mind should talk to Isabel Oakeshott on grounds of taste as much as anything else.

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