Paul Foot

Judges rule against a free press

(12 July 1997)

From Socialist Worker, No.1553, 12 July 1993, p.11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

EVERYONE BELIEVES in a free press – but very few people in high places believe in the free circulation of information to that press.

Workers know what is going on in their workplaces. Many are shocked at what they know. Many would like to pass it on to other people, via the free press or the free television.

Increasingly, however, employers everywhere are ganging up to protect themselves against the revelation of even the most trivial “inside” information.

Not long ago a young journalist called Richard Goodwin who worked for an engineering trade paper was rung up by a source in a company with some fairly horrific information about the company’s internal finances.

Goodwin, as he had been trained to do, rang the company to check the information. His answer was a high court injunction stopping him and his paper from publishing the information and demanding to know who leaked it.

At the time we in the National Union of Journalists regarded this as a bit of a joke. Certainly, we believed, the injunction could not possibly be sustained in the courts. The Contempt of Court Act passed in the early years of the Thatcher government had a specific clause which allowed journalists not to disclose their sources.

Grotesque bonuses

There were very few exceptions to this rule. One of them was national security. Another was “the interests of justice”. Neither category seemed remotely relevant to the Goodwin case.

But the courts, in ascending authority, solemnly declared that it was in the interests of justice for employers to be able to identify any “disloyal” member of their staff and to sack them.

So decreed Lord Bridge (the judge who first jailed the Birmingham Six) in the key judgement, The injunction stood. Goodwin bravely refused to name his source and was fined £5,000.

The National Union of Journalists took his case to Europe, citing the Declaration of Human Rights, and won the case. The fine was annulled, Goodwin cleared, and the company which took the case had to pay a lot of costs.

A considerable victory, and a good day for the freedom of the press. But did it mean that this sort of nonsense wouldn’t happen again?

Consider what has happened this month, only a year after the Goodwin judgement. On 28 May, Marketing Week, a magazine not unlike the one which employed Richard Goodwin, published leaked accounts of Camelot, the lottery company.

The accounts showed grotesque bonuses for the lottery monopolists. They were due to be published anyway five days later. Camelot directors demanded an injunction to force the magazine to deliver the leaked documents.

Once again the magazine pleaded Section Ten of the Contempt of Court Act. The source of the information, they declared, would be revealed if the documents were returned.

Aha, replied Camelot, that is the whole point of disclosing it. Ignoring any talk about the public interest, their lawyers had the cheek to argue that the “interests of justice” demanded that their mole be identified and sacked.

And Mr Justice Martin Kay agreed!

The freedom of the press sounds nice in after dinner speeches at the Inns of Court. But for judges on the bench the security of profit and the virtual enslavement of employees which it demands is far more important.


Last updated on 12.2.2005