THE Revenue Commissioners have lost an appeal against a High Court order that they disclose to RTE documents held by customs and excise related to the involvement of a high-level garda informer in drug smuggling operations.
RTE sought the documents as part of the legal discovery process in its defence of a libel action against it by the informer - who is now in the witness protection programme - and who was named in a Prime Time investigation, despite a pre-broadcast promise not to do so.
In 2007, the High Court ordered the Revenue and gardai to make discovery of certain documents to RTE but this decision was appealed to the Supreme Court by Revenue.
Mr Justice William McKechnie, on behalf of the three-judge Supreme Court, dismissed the appeal after rejecting the Revenue's contention that RTE was on a fishing exercise in order to back up its plea of justification for the Prime Time allegations.
The judge earlier outlined that the case related to an action brought by the informer against RTE in which it was claimed the informer had been libelled in the broadcast, including claims that he had diverted quantities of smuggled drug consignments for his own advantage despite being a garda informer.
The judge said that the Prime Time broadcast, which covered the activities of a criminal gang between 1996 and 1996 was given intense pre-publicity which led to the gardai intervening before the programme went out. As a result, just prior to the start of the broadcast, RTE made an announcement that for reasons of security it had been deemed necessary to remove at late notice images and references to a "key individual" (the informer).
Despite this, he was identified on three occasions during the transmission and his image was also used, the judge said.
After he brought legal proceedings, RTE pleaded justification and denied the words used in the programme were as alleged by the informer with the exception of a reference to him diverting drugs for his own advantage and the station lodged a sum of money in court in relation to this matter.
The judge noted that the informer, in his pleadings for the libel action, said he was approached in early 1995 by a named individual with a view to getting involved in drug running from Holland to Ireland. But before doing so, he approached gardai, informed them of what was intended, and was then recruited as an informer.
Between 1995 and 1996, he made ten trips to Holland, ostensibly as part of the gang but in reality in furtherance of his arrangement with gardai, it was claimed.
On one of the trips, gardai learned customs and excise officers were about to arrest him bringing in 20,000 ecstasy tablets and after some discussion between the various State agencies, it was agreed the gardai would prevent this happening.
To give the appearance of reality to the gang he was in, a garda check point was put up after he arrived in the country and the informer was told to crash his car through the barriers, dump the car and escape, which was what happened.
On his ninth trip, he was stopped by customs at a ferry port and while a heated discussion took place between a plain clothes garda and the customs official, the garda told the informer to drive off. However, he was followed by a number of other cars and it was not until gardai took over the driving of the car, and it was driven around the Dublin mountains for several hours, that they lost the pursuers.
It was information in relation to these matters that RTE sought discovery on against both the gardai and Revenue.
After the High Court rejected the garda and Revenue's argument that such discovery was oppressive, only the Revenue appealed that decision.
In its appeal, the Revenue claimed, among other reasons, that the information was sensitive and confidential and the RTE was on a fishing exercise to reinforce its justification plea in the libel case.
It was also claimed access to such documents could gravely prejudice the free flow of information between the gardai and customs in gathering information and enforcing drug legislation. It could also interfere with the witness protection programme.
RTE said that among the reasons for needing these documents was to establish the nature of the relationship (with the informer) and, more acutely, to identify the limits of that relationship so that the alleged criminal activities of the informer could be appropriately positioned.