Judge rejects Ryanair bid to unmask pilot sources used in Channel 4 Dispatches report

Channel 4 has seen off an attempt by Ryanair to force it to disclose the identities of four pilots who supplied material used in a documentary which posed questions about the fuel policy at the low-cost airline.

Ryanair is suing Channel 4 and production company Blakeway productions for defamation in the High Court in Dublin over a programme in the Dispatches series titled “Secrets from the Cockpit” which was broadcast on 12 August, 2013.

Ryanair claims that the programme meant that it endangered passenger safety by operating a low fuel policy and putting pressure on its pilots to take on as little fuel as possible.

Channel 4 and the programme-maker, Blakeway Productions, argue that the words complained of were true, an expression of honest opinion, and fair and reasonable publication on matters of public interest.

Ryanair applied to the High Court for an order for greater disclosure of documents, challenging Channel 4 and Blakeway’s claims of privilege in relation to the litigation, and of journalistic privilege to protect sources.

Mr Justice Charles Meenan rejected the airline’s attempt to unmask the broadcasters’ sources.

“Channel 4 maintains that is it entitled, under journalistic privilege, not to reveal its sources of information for the programme; this includes not revealing the identities of the four pilots who were interviewed anonymously,” he said.

“It is maintained that such journalistic privilege is a ‘cornerstone’ of a free press which is an essential element of democracy”.

The judge said that analysis of the legal authorities meant that a number of principles could be stated. These were:

  •  Journalistic privilege protected not only the identity of a source, but also, where necessary, the information such a source had provided
  • Unlike legal advice/litigation privilege, journalistic privilege was not absolute and could be displaced by a court carrying out a balancing exercise between the competing rights of freedom of expression and a person’s right to a good name
  • A heavy burden rested on those who sought disclosure of journalistic sources – the court had to be satisfied that such disclosure was justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest or is essential for the exercise of a legal right.

Ryanair, said Mr Justice Meenan, had argued that Channel 4 was not entitled to rely on journalistic privilege without swearing to the full details of the assurances of confidentiality each source had received.

“There does not appear to be any authority for this proposition,” he went on.

It was not necessary for a court to embark on an exercise to establish what assurances were given to sources and whether they were sufficient to invoke the protection of journalistic privilege.

“Further, such an exercise in examining details of assurances could in some, if not many, cases lead to the identity of the source being revealed,” said Mr Justice Meenan.

The judge also rejected the argument that Channel 4 had taken a “heavy handed” approach to redactions in documents, saying: “It is clear that the scope of journalistic privilege is extensive, i.e. it protects not only the identity of sources but also information that may lead to the identification of sources.”

It followed that extensive redaction of documentation might be necessary to avoid the risk of identification.

The judge said that clearly identifying Channel 4’s sources, particularly the four pilots, would help Ryanair at the trial of the action.

“However, it was not submitted nor was it established that the identification of these sources was essential for Ryanair to vindicate its name at the hearing of the action,” he went on.

Picture: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach