Roger Pearson previews a European Court case to finalise journalists' right to protect sources

A case with far-reaching implications for the rights of companies and individuals to prevent confidential information being made public has now reached Europe.

Journalists throughout the European Community are watching the final act in the case of journalist Bill Goodwin which stretches back to 1989 when he was a trainee on The Engineer magazine.

The implications for journalists' rights to protect sources of information are enormous. Depending on which way the 19 European judges rule, the right to carry out undercover investigations without fear of being ordered to reveal sources will be weakened or strengthened.

But the rights of companies to identify those who have passed on confidential information will also be decided.

Goodwin was just 23 when he first stood up to the High Court, the Appeal Court and finally the House of Lords.

The case centred on a low key story about possible financial problems facing a company. Goodwin obtained the story, attempted to verify it and the company quickly took out a 'gagging writ' to prevent publication.

Then, however, the company attempted to force Goodwin to reveal his sources on the basis it believed the story had come from confidential documents. Goodwin refused to reveal his sources of information despite rulings from the House of Lords down that it was in the interest of justice he should. He was fined £5,000 for contempt.

Since then the case has pursued a steady course to Europe. European Commissioners have already decided that UK law breaches European law provisions aimed at protecting freedom of expression.

The case is now waiting a definitive decision from the Human Rights Court following refusal by the UK Government to accept the EC opinion. It is a decision which is going to be of the utmost importance when it finally does arrive.