The Shields Gazette is claiming a major victory for press freedom after a whistle-blower was vindicated over leaking a report on a contaminated beauty spot.
An employment tribunal ruled against the National Trust after it sacked warden Peter Collins for secretly handing over a report to the Gazette about dangerous chemicals at the former landfill site.
The daily newspaper, based in South Shields, published the report – leaked to crime reporter Murray Kelso – and then launched a campaign for its findings to be made public.
The report detailed high levels of deadly poisons buried in an eroding 1950s landfill site, known as Trow Quarry, which had since been turned into a popular beauty spot.
The report wasn’t handed over by South Tyneside Council to the Trust – the landowners – for more than a year.
When Peter Collins, the National Trust warden for the area, finally read the report he was horrified that his bosses had no intention of closing the area, and leaked the document in the public interest.
He was sacked for breaching press protocol and also lost his National Trust-owned cottage.
But a tribunal has now agreed that his actions were justified and he had been unfairly dismissed.
Gazette editor John Szymanski said: “We are delighted over the ruling.
“Peter Collins, who had been warden there for 18 years, clearly believes the area isn’t safe and we backed him to the hilt over his concerns, the experts’ conclusions and subsequent actions.”
Supported by cash donations from the public, Peter took his former employers to tribunal and argued he was acting in the interest of protecting the public.
He also argued his actions were supported by ‘protected disclosure’, which meant he could hand the report to the press if he believed keeping it secret could prove dangerous.
Part of the ruling went: “[Mr Collins] was genuinely worried about the public having access to the site.
“He was worried about the safety of the public. We consider it was reasonable for [Mr Collins] to make the disclosure to the press.”
In the meantime, the resulting Gazette coverage prompted the authority to release an “interpretative report” to the public which downgraded the risks.
A special commission of councillors criticised the council for holding on to the report for so long, ruled the site was safe and also claimed the Gazette’s coverage was over-the-top, a charge refuted by editor John.
He said: “The Gazette stuck by Peter over his concerns and despite being unfairly accused of being ‘sensationalist’ – though never inaccurate – by those vested parties intent on downplaying the issue.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and press for action over the site as well as stand by Peter for his brave actions in warning the people of South Tyneside, who owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
A date has been set for the tribunal to rule on any compensation owed to Peter and whether he will get his job back.