British court's 'mole' hunt sparks heated freedom-of-press debate

Britain's courts have embarked on a "mole" hunt -- with potentially serious consequences for the celebrated freedom of the press here. The "mole" is an as-yet-unidentified British Steel Corporation (BSC) executive who leaked 250 corporate documents to a journalist at Granada Television during the 13-week steel strike last winter.

On July 30, the highest court in the land gave Granada Television seven days to reveal the mole's name, and brought the British press to its collective feet with dire predictions of the consequences and with pleas to Granada not to cave in.

The announcement came just as the papers were full of news that the nationalized steel company had lost $:545 million ($1.3 billion) last year, which, because of the strike, was even more than anticipated. Granada's "World in Action" program, shown nationwide Feb. 4, used the documents to suggest that the problem was due to poor management and bad handling of the strike.

The Manchester-based television company, one of the nation's most respected, has not yet decided how to respond to the court's request. It is even keeping secret the name of the one journalist in its ranks who knows the mole's name.

British Steel hasn't decided how to pursue the case, initiated under its former chairman, Sir Charles Villiers. He has since been replaced by Ian MacGregor.

Observers note that protecting the confidentiality of sources is one of the most treasured rights of the Western press. Such sources are particularly valuable here, where official channels are less open than in the US and where, as Parliament member Keith Hampson told the Monitor: "Most of government policy comes out through one form of leak or another."

The increase in leaks among upper- level civil servants over the past decade, however, has distressed the government. Dr. Hampson feels that the law lords -- who, in an unusual move, will not present the reasoning behind their decision until the fall -- may be reacting to this change.

Dr. Hampson doesn't believe this is the start of a continuing campaign. Instead, he regards it as a "shot across the bows" to warn off potential offenders.

But until the five law lords publish their opinions, no one can be sure how strong the warnings are. The press, predictably, argues that such warnings will scare off informants and short-leash journalists in their traditional watchdog role. Many cite the case of BSC. If inept management costs the taxpayers money , they argue, the taxpayers should know, and management would be the last to tell them.

British journalists have chosen prison over disclosure in the past, says Ken Morgan, director of the Press Council, but the cases involved criminal and security offenses.

"This week's decision has extended the danger to journalists and their sources to the whole field of civil and commercial legal actions," he said.

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