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For: Roy Greenslade 14.12.2005
Do journalists have a right not to reveal their sources for stories?
What would we journalists do without informants, whistleblowers and all sorts of sources? Without them we would not be able to approach a story from different angles in order to find the best one, nor would we be expected to keep up with everything that is going on anyway. Finding and keeping contacts is something a journalist learns to do from the very first stage of his career. As it becomes more obvious down the road, a journalist will many times depend on them to get the story as “sources are the lifeblood of a good story.”1
But not always these sources wish to be identified by the media for a number of reasons. They do not want to see their name on television or the newspaper because if they do, they would instantly become targets for harassment to the people who disagree with their statements. But in the case when a source that has asked to remain anonymous, reveals crucial information about something and a higher authority like the police wishes to interrogate him to examine the validity of his statements, should the journalist reveal his details to them? That is when the journalist will show whether he is going to stand by his moral obligation not to reveal the identity of his informant, as he originally promised not to.
A Loyalist murderer known as Clifford McKeown certainly must regret revealing and gloating over the shooting of a Catholic taxi-driver, to journalist Nick Martin-Clark in Northern Ireland’s Maghaberry prison six years ago. Despite being sworn to confidence, Martin-Clark revealed all the necessary details to the police and McKeown was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 24-year minimum stipulation for the murder of Michael McGoldrick in 1996. In his 2003 article published in the British Journalism Review, Martin-Clark admits that while he is now to spend the rest of his life on a witness protection programme, he does not regret his actions that helped put McKeown in jail.2
That would be all well and nice if Martin-Clark was a private investigator, a historian, or even a researcher as he originally claimed to the prison officers after presenting some forged documents to prove that he was working for the office of an MP. While the fact that he broke an actual promise does not change regardless of what kind of profession he exercised, the journalistic ethos of protecting sources no matter who they are, does not allow him to have the luxury of choosing whether he should or should not disclose that information to the police.
Martin-Clark would argue that at the end of the day After speaking to colleagues, he considered that his duty as a citizen and his duty as a human being, outweighed his duty of confidentiality. But once again, he should be reminded that this case is not about him but about the journalistic profession in general, which there is no doubt that he scarred by his actions that will make life more difficult for other journalists who do protect their sources.
“Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.”3 Doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationships have long been privileged by the society and the authorities, allowing the listeners to withhold any confidential information they learned while doing their job. However, the journalist's privilege to withhold information is less developed and journalists are frequently asked to reveal their sources and the information they have obtained from them to lawyers, the authorities and courts. In principle, I believe that journalists have a right to withhold identities of sources as investigative journalism is an important part of any democracy. “Freedom of the press is an essential component of a democratic society. The right of journalists to protect their confidential sources of information protects press freedom and the free flow of information. If this right is infringed upon, sources of valuable information dry up instantly.”4
Should a journalist be called to produce his notes and sources for one of his stories to the authorities or in court, time should be taken for examining the importance of the story itself. Each case should be examined in detail and if there is a chance that by revealing sources puts innocent people at risk, then measures should be taken. Should the story be about a kiss-and-tell situation run by your average tabloid, then there is no real reason why a journalist should be granted the privilege of withholding the identity of his sources. Plus there is the fact that they could “hide their source” in defense against just making purely libelous and/or scandalous comments.
Of course, exceptions exist even in these situations and that is why I believe that each case should be thoroughly examined by an evaluating committee of some sort. If there is a credible risk for someone’s life, then special “closed courts” could be arranged where only a few trustworthy people would attend and seek justice without the public eye focusing on them.
But do “closed courts” like the ones I described ever take place? Unfortunately they do not. Not to a big extent anyway. “There have been several examples of journalists being jailed for refusing to reveal their sources. Sometimes, journalists have to pay a high price for producing material that they believe to be of vital public interest.”5 So instead of “closed courts” the journalists have something else they can depend on in case they are asked to provide the names of their sources. “Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 appears to confer a qualified privilege upon investigative journalists and others, allowing them to refuse to disclose the identity of a source of information. The section is subject to a number of exceptions, allowing the court to insist upon disclosure when it is ‘necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime’”6
While in Martin-Clark’s mind, his actions were justified because he thought he was serving a greater good, he knowingly violated one of the core journalistic principles that dictate that confidential sources are to be always protected. His decision to reveal the identity of his source will take a toll on other journalists who will have harder time now getting sources to trust them, because that is what it all comes down to: Trust.
(words: 1.049) ENDS
1) de Burgh, H. Investigative Journalism: Context and Practice, London and New York: Routledge, 2000
2) Martin-Clark, N. When a journalist must tell, British Journalism Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2003
3) Rudin, R. and Ibbotson, T. An Introduction to Journalism: Essential techniques and background knowledge, Oxford: Focal Press, 2002
4) Spark, D. Investigative Reporting: A Study in Technique, Oxford: Focal Press, 1999
5) International Press Institute, http://www.freemedia.at
1 Hugo de Burgh, Investigative Journalism: Context and Practice, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 142
2 Nick Martin-Clark, When a journalist must tell (British Journalism Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2003) p. 35-39
3 David Spark, Investigative Reporting: A Study in Technique (Oxford: Focal Press, 1999), p. 251
4 International Press Institute, http://www.freemedia.at
5 Richard Rudin and Trevor Ibbotson, An Introduction to Journalism: Essential techniques and background knowledge, (Oxford: Focal Press, 2002), p. 311
6 de Burgh, op. cit., p. 143
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