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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Moral Reason Never to Tell

Dr John Coulter • British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 1, 2005, pages 65-69

The prickly subject of source protection took centre stage once more towards the end of last year in the United States when a slew of court actions demanding that reporters reveal sources saw journalists sentenced to jail and, subsequently, the introduction of a federal “shield” law that would provide “absolute protection” for confidential sources. Democrat senator Christopher Dodd’s “Free Speech Protection Act of 2004” is designed to prevent the compelled disclosure of sources “regardless of whether or not the source was promised confidentiality”. It appears that progress is being made, but source protection remains a dilemma throughout journalism.

In Northern Ireland, for example, investigating allegations of collusion between the British security forces and Protestant death squads has become an ethical minefield for journalists. In that area, journalists have to handle the issue of their confidential sources with the same delicate professionalism that an army bomb expert would deal with a volatile bottle of nitro-glycerine. Practically, the problem here, too, is one of protection of sources. Often journalists are granting anonymity either to terrorists who are working for the security forces as agents and informers, or rogue elements within the security forces who are using their positions allegedly to arrange the murder of political opponents or terrorist activists.

Later this year another formal inquiry into one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious collusion cases is expected to begin. In 1989, the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters terrorist group murdered the prominent human rights solicitor Patrick Finucane at his Belfast home in front of his family. Loyalist activists believed to be working for the security forces played a major role in his murder. The case has already led to confrontations between journalists investigating collusion, the security forces, and the British judiciary. But how else are journalists expected to gain bona fide information from confidential sources about the State’s alleged illegal activities unless they give a cast-iron guarantee of anonymity to those primary sources?

In such scenarios, journalists need first to address the moral dilemma: are they investigative journalists first, or citizens of the State first? They cannot jump between the two. If they decide it is the latter, then they should not be giving confidential sources worthless guarantees that at some point in the future they will abandon. In the issue of collusion, for journalists to identity their confidential sources makes them no better than the agents of the State they are exposing.

Let me state categorically where I stand on the issue of a journalist’s confidential sources of information. For me, the fundamental ethical principle of journalism is that we have a moral imperative to give a guarantee of anonymity to genuine confidential sources providing bona fide information. There can be no transparency in the trust that our sources must have in us as professional journalists. If we sacrifice that trust, we betray our credibility as reporters of the truth. Likewise, if there is no trust between the confidential source and the journalist, it destroys the concept of honesty in the verification of the evidence given by that source.

The easy way out

As a weekly newspaper editor, I faced the ultimate crisis of conscience in the aftermath of the screening in October 1991 of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, The Committee. It would have been easy to get the State and perceived pro-establishment reporters off my back by revealing the identity of my source of information of the Inner Circle, the “secret” organisation, denied by the RUC, that linked some members of the security forces to loyalist death squads. I chose not to, and paid a price personally and professionally. I have learned there is a thin line between journalism and indirectly working for the State, but that thin line is still clearly recognisable in terms of ethics. As a senior lecturer in journalism in further and higher education, I have used my experiences to guide others through that ethical minefield of investigative journalism, particularly on the issue of source protection.

In this respect, I strongly disagree with the ethical stance on sources taken by the reporter Nick Martin-Clarke. I do not wish this to deteriorate into a personal character assassination of Mr Martin-Clarke, but I do criticise his ethical stance on the evidence of his article, “When a journalist must tell”, published in the British Journalism Review (vol. 14, no. 2). In this piece, Mr Martin-Clarke made the following startling confession: “ ... I broke an undertaking I had given as a journalist ...” He also notes: “...journalists often end up in court for refusing to divulge their sources. I, however, appeared against my source after having given an undertaking of confidentiality. Understandably therefore there was an outcry in some quarters after the verdict.” Mr Martin-Clarke attempts to justify his ethical position by stating: “An absolutist stance on confidentiality is akin to total pacifism or to not telling a lie even to save a life. It is an eccentricity that has little to offer real-world journalism.” But there is an absolutist stance on source protection – it’s called the moral imperative to protect the identity of that source.

Words may be our weapons, but our word as journalists is the moral anchor upon which our great profession is based. If we deliberately sacrifice that trust, we cut our profession adrift, and our ships known as credibility, objectivity, and believability will perish in the violent seas of suspicion and backstabbing. You may pose the ethical dilemma how do you survive in such a scenario? There is an old maxim, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Applied to the journalistic issue of source protection it reads if you can’t keep your word, don’t do the story. I’ve had a lifetime’s association with the Boys’ Brigade movement, and we have a hymn, which states: “... will your anchor hold in the storms of life?”. In spite of all the technological developments in the past decade, modern political journalism is still weighted firmly to the ethical anchor that a good journalist never reveals his or her sources.

The Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice makes the following recommendation under the banner of “confidential sources”: “Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.” In practical terms this advice could be interpreted as: “A journalist who has a genuine source providing bona fide information should take whatever steps are required to protect the identity of that source.” Society can scream about the public’s right to privacy, but the most fundamental demand is the right to keep private the identity of confidential sources.

In this respect, I speak from frontline investigative experience as one of the researchers of The Committee, which probed allegations of collusion between the then Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist death squads. Whatever your views on the debate over allegations of collusion, there can be no doubting that this Dispatches programme became a watershed in investigative journalism in Northern Ireland. In 1992, Channel 4 was heavily fined for refusing to tell the RUC about a source for the programme. Parts of the Prevention of Terrorism legislation were used against Channel 4 and the independent producer, Box Productions, when the RUC won a court order for materials to be handed over after the Dispatches programme was broadcast. For the record, the RUC issued a detailed statement in the press in August 1992, noting: “... the RUC wishes to assure the people of Northern Ireland and beyond that the allegations, as portrayed by the Channel 4 television programme, are without foundation”.

More than a decade on from the transmission of that programme, I am as firmly committed to the concept of source protection as I was in 1991, when, as a full-time journalist, I was interviewed by the RUC concerning my Inner Circle source. I firmly believe, too, that the solution to this problem will be found in our journalist training centres. People entering the craft of investigative journalism need to ask themselves a fundamental ethical question: how far am I prepared to go to protect the identity of a genuine source? If the wider media, and investigative journalism in particular, is to have an effective ethical strategy for this first decade of the new millennium and beyond, the media industries should address the issue of ethics at the training stage, rather than waiting until the programmes are broadcast or the articles published.

Questions that must be asked

One of the main vocational courses for the training of journalists in the United Kingdom is the NCFE NVQ Level 4. Ethics, based on the PCC’s Code of Practice, is a fundamental part of the curriculum. While firm guidelines can be drawn up through a partnership of media educationists and media industrialists, the individual journalist’s freedom of choice must be respected. Media ethics in terms of journalist training must be a consciencedriven curriculum. The options and consequences can be explained in depth, but the fundamental principle is that each journalist must ultimately make the decision on their methods to protect source identities according to their own conscience.

The pillars of such a conscience-driven curriculum are based on the five essential questions of journalism: who, what, where, why and how? These questions need to be asked against a background of both informed theory and practical reality. Applied to the protection of sources, these questions could read:

WHO should journalists view as sources worth protecting?
WHAT measures should journalists adopt in protecting the identity of their sources?
WHERE should journalists look for support in the protection of these sources?
WHY should source protection be the key to any future code of practice for journalists?
HOW should source protection be administered by the media industry?

What should our strategy be for the future? One of the foundations of a free press is a conscience-driven ethical code. There needs to be a realistic debate concerning the ethical code of not only investigative journalism, but the entire craft of journalism itself. Currently, British and Irish journalism enjoys the luxury of ethical self-regulation. However, there is the increasing danger that the State will at some point try to seize control of ethics under the guise of protecting privacy. In such a nightmare scenario, it would be logical to conclude that journalists and news organisations could find themselves answering to an ethical committee of Parliament equipped with draconian judicial powers.

If print journalism is to survive as a truly free press in the third millennium, it will have to re-define the extent to which it can genuinely protect those on the cutting edge of serious investigative research. A starting point to establishing the rights of the investigative reporter is a workable policy on source protection and the acknowledgement of the need to protect genuine confidential sources... whatever the price.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

22 May 2005

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The Moral Reason Never to Tell
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Support IRELAND and PALESTINE on June 4th
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