Nowhere to hide

It's a golden rule of journalism: sources must never be identified. But, in the light of the David Kelly affair, Tim Luckhurst asks, does the media's responsibility to whistleblowers end there?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The legend of Deep Throat runs deep and, to British journalists, it conveys a solitary absolute: confidential sources must never be identified while they are alive. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, articulated it just after the discovery of Dr David Kelly's body. "Whistleblowers," he said "will not come forward if they think they are going to be grassed up at a later stage. It is the golden rule of journalism that we don't betray our sources and are prepared to go to prison to uphold that principle." In the tragic case of Dr Kelly, the BBC stuck to the letter of the law, refusing to confirm that he was Andrew Gilligan's source until Kelly had apparently taken his own life.

Exactly what occurred between Kelly and Gilligan may only become clear when Lord Hutton has completed his inquiry into the affair. The judge said yesterday that he expected "the fullest co-operation" from all parties involved.

Meanwhile, an ethical question arises. Is it sufficient to regard the protection of a source as amounting to no more than the duty to preserve their anonymity? In 1986 Andrew Neil was editor of The Sunday Times when the former Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu took evidence to the newspaper that Israel possessed a stockpile of more than 100 nuclear weapons. Soon after the resulting exclusive appeared, Vanunu was lured from London to Rome by a Mossad honeytrap. He was then kidnapped and flown home to face trial on charges of espionage and treason. Vanunu was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Andrew Neil believes that, "We should have done more to protect him. We did warn him that his life was in danger. We warned him not to wander off. We remonstrated with him. But we couldn't mount a 24-hour guard." In retrospect, says Neil, "I think we could have done more to protect Vanunu."

How? Anonymity was not the issue in the Vanunu case. The real question was whether the source was fully aware of the venomous backlash his revelations would provoke. Vanunu was not. Nor it seems was Dr Kelly. Kelly was not completely inexperienced in dealing with the press. He had developed relationships of trust with several specialist correspondents and was accustomed to helping them with stories concerning his unique expertise about weapons of mass destruction. But it is now tragically apparent that he was ill prepared for the firestorm generated by his briefing to Andrew Gilligan.

Should journalists work harder to ensure that protection means more than just a promise not to name names? Andrew Neil says, "I think as a profession we give far too little thought to that."

The Father of the House of Commons, Tam Dalyell, has direct experience of a similar situation. Dalyell was the Labour MP to whom the Ministry of Defence official Clive Ponting leaked evidence that the Thatcher government had misled the House about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Dalyell says, "From my experience of the Ponting trial I am absolutely certain that journalists should never reveal sources. Whatever the harm to individuals, the wider damage to society that would occur if secret sources believed they would be identified would be greater." But Dalyell adds an important caveat. In light of recent events he says, "I would think about whether someone who told me needed more protection. I would go to some lengths to disguise the source."

The point is crucial. Not naming is not necessarily synonymous with guaranteeing anonymity. A BBC journalist, speaking on conditions of strict anonymity, admits, "If you take the BBC's original description of Andrew Gilligan's source it is clear that it must be one of three or four people. There is always tension between proving that your source is senior and credible and not identifying them, particularly when the pressure is intense. In a perfect world you would always make sure that your description of the source does not allow them to be identified."

Dr Kelly, of course, identified himself to his own Civil Service superiors. But his constituency MP, Conservative Robert Jackson, has made it clear that he thinks: "The responsibility of the BBC should not go unmentioned." Yesterday he called for the resignations of Gilligan, the BBC director of news, Richard Sambrook, and BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.

Richard Sambrook's statement that "Dr Kelly was the source for the Today programme report by Andrew Gilligan on 29 May" leaves no doubt that, whether intentionally or not, Kelly did place himself in the same category as previous official whistleblowers including Sarah Tisdall, Clive Ponting and David Shayler. Could the corporation have done more to protect Kelly from the consequences of his meeting with Gilligan? The corporation prides itself on having the most rigorous rules on accountability. Nothing as controversial as Gilligan's exclusive on May 29 should be broadcast without prior consultation between programme editors and senior news executives. The consequences of transmission are supposed to be carefully weighed before it happens.

That did not occur. At 5.55pm on 8 July, when the Government first revealed that a member of MoD staff had admitted meeting Gilligan before the Iraq war, the BBC responded with a statement that "the description of the individual does not match Mr Gilligan's source in some important ways". The truth is that, at that stage, Sambrook did not know who Gilligan's source was. In an e-mail that night he told me that he did not think the official fingered by the MoD was "our man". That was a substantial barrier to any form of protection. Had the BBC been minded to offer the security of a safe house it would not have known who to put in it.

Nick Jones, the former BBC political correspondent and scourge of government spin, has a simple prescription for avoiding this sort of problem. He told Sunday's Broadcasting House programme on Radio 4 that the BBC should not be seeking exclusives. "They should be the exception, not the rule," he said, and he warned that the "terrible pressure" to find exclusive stories has created a barrage of "anonymous stories and anonymous sources" and that "the standards of British political journalism have declined" as a result. The question of whether Gilligan's account of his meeting with the weapons inspector was absolutely accurate must remain a matter for Lord Hutton's inquiry.

It may not always be possible for journalists to prepare their sources for the full whirlwind truly sensitive revelations are likely to provoke. But is it impossible? The BBC would have been in a stronger position to defend Kelly if it had known from the start that he was Gilligan's source. Andrew Neil's point extends beyond the corporation. Even at its best, journalism has a moral lacuna when it comes to protecting the interests of those whose consciences drive them to reveal uncomfortable truths.

A debate is needed about how that objective may be pursued without reducing the willingness of whistleblowers to expose secrets. The courage displayed by sources such as Vanunu, Tisdall, Ponting and Kelly suggests that they might not have been deterred if an editor had warned them of the possible consequences and made suggestions as to how they might be protected from their most aggressive manifestations.