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Lord Justice Leveson: Civil servants must never leak (photo: The Leveson Inquiry)

Heroism does not suit men and women who serve Rupert Murdoch. The crimes of his newspapers brought the greatest attack on press freedom Britain has seen in peacetime. His American TV station Fox News is famed for the braying stupidity of its propaganda.

Clodagh Hartley most certainly did not fit the model of the crusading journalist. The Sun's Whitehall correspondent hated her work. Her counsel at the Old Bailey described how the paper's political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, "had succeeded in stealing contacts" from her. "Bullying" and constant demand for exclusive stories from the newsdesk made her ill.

But then free societies should allow ordinary, unheroic people to hold power to account without hearing the thump of policemen's boots on their stairs. An Old Bailey jury thought so, and acquitted Hartley of charges of arranging unlawful payments to a tax official. But the wider implications of the operation against Hartley and 24 other Sun journalists currently on trial remain ominous in the extreme. The British state will now use surveillance technology to unmask the contacts of newspaper journalists, broadcasters and political campaigners. They will act without a warrant from a judge. The smallest leak of classified information will set them off.

Clodagh Hartley's leak was so trivial hardly anyone remembered it. She paid a Revenue and Customs source £17,000 for a series of minor stories, the most notable of which contained details of how Alastair Darling's Treasury was planning to spin the 2010 Budget.

The prosecution did not say that she had threatened national security or harmed any citizen. When Hartley said she was "just doing her job" by exposing a Whitehall spin, it came up with a reply that had a horrible ring of truth to it. The prosecution said the press did not need to hold the government to account. That was the job of the opposition. In a few words, a Crown Prosecutor, briefed by the state, funded by taxpayers' money, showed us where Hacked Off and Lord Leveson's carelessness with basic democratic principles have left Britain. Only the official opposition can use confidential information to expose spin or worse. Everyone else must steer clear. (Incidentally, they don't even offer that small concession sincerely. When the Conservative MP Damian Green was an Opposition MP, the Metropolitan Police ignored a tradition of Parliamentary privilege dating back to the 1640s and arrested him.)

We cannot know why the jury acquitted Hartley. But it is reasonable to assume that they were not impressed by the notion that embarrassing information must remain in the hands of the political class, bureaucracy, police and armed forces. Jurors on the whole do not respond well to prosecutors telling them to vote keep the public in ignorance.

The jury could do nothing for Jonathan Hall, Hartley's source at the Revenue, however. Hartley had in all honesty assured him that the Sun would hide his identity. There is no more sacred principle in journalism than your obligation to protect your sources — indeed at times it can seem the only principle we have. Betray the source and you break your word. Betray the source and you harm the public interest, for whistleblowers will not come forward if they know that journalists will hand them over to the police.

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