William Goodwin, a young trainee journalist on a British journal, The Engineer, received a telephone call leaking information about the finance affairs of a company. Although he was threatened with imprisonment and a fine of £5,000, he continued to refuse to reveal his source. His intense duty to protect his source even led him to reject a compromise offered by the trial judge of putting the information in a sealed envelope to be held by the court pending the result of his appeal.
After speaking to his source, he drafted an article describing how the company was facing an expected loss of £2.1 million, as they were attempting to raise a £5 million loan. He then phoned the company to check facts in the article. They concluded the information came from a missing confidential corporate plan. They obtained an injunction to restrain the publication of the article.
In 1981, a 'shield law' was adopted, giving journalists some protection from disclosing a source. Under it, a court is not to order the press to reveal the identity of a source unless satisfied that it is "necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime". (Contempt of Court Act, 1981, Section 10). British courts have ruled that the words "interests of justice" are not limited to cases where disclosure is necessary in the particular action being taken, in this case the application for the injunction. After granting the injunction, the trial judge held, that it was in the interests of justice for the company to find the leak which was expected to damage the company at some time in the future. They ordered the journalist to reveal his source.
He then brought a case against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court, emphasised the importance of the freedom of expression. They stated how it constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. The protection of journalistic sources was one of the basic conditions of press freedom. "Without such protection, sources could be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public watchdog role of the press could be undermined ..."
Because of the importance for press freedom in a democracy of protecting journalistic sources and the effect an order of source disclosure would have on the exercise of this freedom, the measure could not be compatible with the convention unless it was justified by an over-riding requirement in the public interest.
Here, the injunction notice which had been circulated to the press generally had prevented dissemination of the confidential information. Reducing the threat of damage would have three benefits to the company: revealing the source; obtaining compensation; and exposing a disloyal employee. They were held to be insufficient in outweighing the public interest in the protection of Mr Goodwin's source. The Court found (11 to 7) that both the order to reveal his source, and the fine imposed for refusing to do so, were a violation of Mr Goodwin's right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, 6 of the dissenting judges believed that the protection of journalists' sources is one of the basic conditions of press freedom and, without it, the vital public watchdog role of the press would be severely affected.