Dermot Feenan and Michael Lavery QC

Summaries of presentations to the conference by two Belfast lawyers - solicitor Dermot Feenan and Michael Lavery QC -- by Austin Hunter, chief press officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and by Sir Louis Blom Cooper QC, former chairman of the Press Council.

DERMOT FEENAN began by explaining that there are more than 20 laws relating to journalism, and that the list is still growing. The Contempt of Court Act, he said, has had a chilling effect on journalists.

Freedom of the Press is vital in a democratic society. Freedom of speech is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and this was tested in Goodwin v UK. He said press freedom was given strong protection by that judgement - one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.

This was enshrined by the Human Rights Act, 1998. Section 12 specifically refers to journalistic material.

However, Section 117 of the Terrorism Act 2000 introduced the offence of failing to disclose information which a person knows or believes might be of material assistance in preventing the commission by another of an act of terrorism. This is punishable as an indictable offence by up to five years' imprisonment.

AUSTIN HUNTER raised the arrests of Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston, and explained that his office had continued their relationship with both despite the issues Liam and Kathy had with detectives. He said he had been due to meet Martin O'Hagan for lunch just before he was killed.

He said there is a growing number of NUJ members within his department, which takes 300 calls every day. Austin stressed that when the police have information that there is a threat to a person's life, their concern is for that person's safety and they usually do not confirm that a threat exists.

He concluded by saying that the police and the media cannot really live without one another.

MICHAEL LAVERY began by saying that the Goodwin case is the classic expression of the importance of journalism. He went on to say that a judge has to carry out a balancing exercise. In the Ed Moloney case the judge had access to material that was not available to all the parties, but he still doesn't know what the information was.

The court formula, he said, puts an onus on the police to establish that what they seek is of substantial value. It introduced a refinement to protection of sources covering material.

He underlined that journalists should not be seen to be an aid to the police as this would make journalism increasingly difficult.

LOUIS BLOM COOPER said that Mulholland, Foster and Clough went to prison and the threat has not gone away. Tribunals still try to wave the big stick. Interestingly, he said imprisonment has now been taken off the agenda.

Judges give higher priority to property rights of individuals than to journalistic ethics in the Goodwin case. Section 10 of the 1981 Act cannot any longer be regarded as a balancing act between the two.

Professionals now have a duty to disclose even a suspicion of criminal activity. The idea of campaigning for a statute is not appropriate at this moment.

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