Journalist Refuses to Reveal Source in Council Sacking Case

A deputy editor of two local newspapers in North Lanarkshire refused to reveal his source in a story about a local authority employee being sacked – despite the threat he might be committing an offence. 

Mike McQuaid – of newspapers, the Motherwell Times and Bellshill Speaker – was last week giving evidence at a hearing of the quango, the Standards Commission, which was considering a claim that a local authority councillor had leaked information about the sacking to the press.

Supported by both his newspaper's publisher, Johnston Press, and the National Union of Journalists, McQuaid refused to say where his paper received the leaked information from.

He was first contacted by the Commission over a year ago. Lawyers representing Johnston Press even attended a hearing in August, with his notebook in a sealed envelope, to ensure its contents would not be revealed.

The story about the employee's sacking followed the leaking of a confidential document.

McQuaid told “I was interviewed face-to-face in September last year, then written to the following month. There was further written correspondence in March this year and then there was my appearance at the hearing last week. The language was quite intimidating, the possible consequences of not revealing my source. Because it was in the paper, it was known that I had interviewed the councillor involved, in his capacity as media office of the SNP group on the council. But I would not reveal the source of the document.”

Adds McQuaid: “The [Commission's] chief investigating officer in a letter last October, in demanding my notebook, wrote: 'Non-compliance is by operation of statute equivalent to a contempt of court, which is a criminal offence. If you fail to comply with this request I may report your conduct to the Court of Session for their disposal as an offence committed by you.' I took that very much that I would be jailed if I did not hand over the notes.”

His refusal was reported last week in the latest edition of the two papers, both of which come out on a Wednesday.

Said Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser of the NUJ: “Mike McQuaid backed by the NUJ, his editors and employers, Johnston Press, has taken a principled stand which is essential for journalistic standards and we will continue to back that stance.”

Added Michael Johnston, divisional managing director, Scotland and North East England, of Johnston Press: “The group is absolutely committed to robust journalism and will vigorously defend the right of its editors and reporters to freely investigate all matters of public interest, which in this case includes the legitimate protection of the identity of a valuable source of information.”

Said Richard Bell, managing director of Johnston Press Falkirk, which includes the Motherwell Times and the Bellshill Speaker in its newspaper portfolio: “Our view is that the Standards Commission has overstepped the mark, in terms of what it was originally set up to do, which is to oversee elected members and how they are performing their duties, not to go after journalists to reveal their sources. We intend to write to the Scottish Government to urge they look again at the Commission guidelines.”

Despite McQuaid's silence, the Commission ruled that Councillor Paul Delaney be barred from attending council meetings for three months.