When is it safe for authorities to release details of informants who have helped police solve crimes? Obviously, an informant would expect anonymity – but when does release of their information no longer pose a threat to them, or their family?
According to a ruling by a Freedom of Information Tribunal – the place you go to if you want to appeal an Information Commissioner ruling – the point at which releasing the name of informants via FOI no longer poses a threat to them is somewhere between 100 and 350 years after the event.
And it’s all thanks to Jack the Ripper. Really.
Earlier this month, the tribunal heard the case of Trevor Marriott, an ex-policeman turn historian who wanted access to the ledgers produced by police investigating the 19th century murders committed by Jack the Ripper. The ledgers include names of informants and how much they were paid, and their existence within Special Branch archives has only become known in the last 15 years.
He believed access to that information might help him solve the crimes committed by the Ripper in London in the 1880s.
Under a previous ruling, the Information Commissioner had insisted the ledgers be released, but had agreed that the names of those who received payments be redacted. As well as the name of the person, the amount paid to them is also listed plus an indication on what information they provided.
When this FOI request was first made, the Met said no to it on the grounds that modern-day informants might not come forward if they thought their details would be released via FOI in the future. Therefore, section 30 of FOI law exemptions applies – because release of the information could harm investigations.
Ths issue was complicated further by the fact that the Met had allowed a history researcher to have access to the ledgers in 2005 on the grounds she kept what she saw a secret. However, pictures of the ledger later appeared on her website as she tried to determine who actually Jack the Ripper was. [The police say they didn't take action against her because they didn't want to draw attention to what she had done.]
The real question appears to have been: “At what point is can informants be named without danger or reprisals?” The historian who brought the appeal suggested after 120 years, there was no danger of reprisals – after all, who would want to avenge the distant relations of people who tried to help police catch Jack the Ripper?
He even used a researcher to try and track down the descendents of those informants who were known about – and this researcher wasn’t able to do that.
The police’s argument in response was simple: No matter how old the information, releasing it would make it harder for current day informants to come forward. This is because, according to one police officer at the hearing, many informants are ‘paranoid’ about their identity being exposed, or their families being harmed for what they did.
One police officer gave an example that it’s quite possible that if ‘treachery’ of someone in the Ireland conflict was revealed 120 years on, it’s possible his descendent would receive punishment.
Another witness said: “Just as the police protect informants in perpetuity so the terrorist organisations will hunt them down in perpetuity. The result in some communities was that great-grandsons and later generations would be at risk if their great-grandfathers were ever exposed as informants.”
And this is where it gets surreal. Two members of the three-strong tribunal decided that the Met and the Information Commissioner were right not to allow the release of the names 120 years on, saying that such information should be kept secret for at last 120 years. The third member of the tribunal said 120 years was too long to wait.
But the three members of the tribunal panel also agreed that these names should be released at some point in history, arguing that if someone was so paranoid about their details being released more than a century later, they probably weren’t fit to be a reliable informant in the first place. I told you it got odd:
To take an extreme example, if a potential informant were to be discouraged from co-operating by the fear that his or her activities would be disclosed after, say, three hundred and fifty years (the equivalent of the disclosure today of those who may have acted as spies during the English Civil War), then one might conclude that his
or her paranoia was so intense and irrational that it would not be safe for the police to pursue the recruitment process.
So we know that the Informaton Tribunal believes 120 years is just too soon to be naming historical informats, but that by the time you reach 350 years, it’s perfectly fine to be releasing information.
But exactly when should names be named in FOI documents relating to informants? Well, having invoked reference to the civil war, and deciding that the Jack the Ripper case is still a little too fresh, the tribunal didn’t actually say.
The mystery of Jack the Ripper remains unsolved, as does a potentially key point of Freedom of Information law….