Paul Vallely: When exposing a source is the right thing to do

The only issue of confidence over the 'Mirror' photographs is a confidence trick
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The Independent Online

There is much talk about journalistic ethics in the Daily Mirror newsroom. Reporters loyal to the sacked editor, Piers Morgan, have been voicing their unhappiness at the management's decision to hand over to Ministry of Defence police the names of the soldiers who furnished the paper with the testimony on alleged abuses by British troops in Iraq - and the photographs to go with them. High-minded talk about a "journalist's duty to protect his or her sources" has been heard.

There is much talk about journalistic ethics in the Daily Mirror newsroom. Reporters loyal to the sacked editor, Piers Morgan, have been voicing their unhappiness at the management's decision to hand over to Ministry of Defence police the names of the soldiers who furnished the paper with the testimony on alleged abuses by British troops in Iraq - and the photographs to go with them. High-minded talk about a "journalist's duty to protect his or her sources" has been heard.

The paper's managers are giving this short shrift. The duty of journalistic confidentiality does not extend to individuals who have been trying to defraud the newspaper with fake photos, they have said crisply. The reporters will be told to hand over the names.

All this is not as straightforward as might be assumed. For all the elevated moral tone that journalists habitually adopt in such circumstances, it rarely is. Take the death of Dr David Kelly, which sparked off the Hutton Inquiry. At the heart of it was the refusal by the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan to reveal who was his source for the claim that the case for war in Iraq had been sexed up.

What Hutton revealed, for all the sloppiness of Gilligan's initial report, was a journalistic system that was a good deal more impressive than the subsequent political hoo-haa implied. Knowledge of Kelly's identity was restricted to a handful of need-to-know senior editorial staff; the management didn't know, nor did the chairman Gavyn Davies until he was told by Geoff Hoon. Yet amidst all this was a revealing hint of the ambiguity with which confidentiality is often viewed, for Gilligan, when his back was against the wall, virtually let slip Kelly's identity in briefing an MP who was about to cross-examine the scientist in a Commons committee.

The classic defence on protecting sources goes like this: if a journalist names a source then, in future, other sources will not come forward and the winners will be those who seek to pull a cloak of secrecy over fraud, malpractice and corruption. But what if it is not fraud we are dealing with but something more slippery?

One of the classic areas for rows over protecting sources is City journalism. Take the anonymous circulation to journalists a few years ago of confidential company documents which showed that Interbrew, the Belgian brewer, was considering a takeover for South African Breweries. Publication scuppered the deal. The firm took several papers to court to get them to hand over the documents so it could work out who leaked them.

Behind the front-line "we cannot reveal our sources" defence here, however, other ethical questions lurk. What if reporters find themselves being used as pawns in the Machiavellian games of financiers, industrialists and investors? What about information - whether true, half-true or untrue - whose leaking is designed primarily to mislead investors or manipulate the market? Are journalists here not colluding in some kind of abuse?

Now shift that template to politics, and the world of spin that fills our newspapers with all manner of phoney unsourced stories. Here reluctance to reveal sources, whose purpose may only be to make mischief, may have less to do with the need to inform the public and more to do with ensuring the source of such stories does not dry up.

Ethical dilemmas are often not about the clash of right and wrong. They are about a clash of two rights. Even had the Mirror photographs been genuine, there would have been an issue about whether the need for the free flow of information overwhelms all other considerations. Traditionally judges deal with journalists' insistence on the primacy of protecting sources under section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which says that a court may require disclosure of a source only where it is in the interests of justice, national security or the prevention of crime.

Judges have tricky decisions here. Sometimes, as when they give higher priority to property rights of individuals than to journalistic ethics, they get it wrong. At other times, as in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry where the families of the dead argue that journalists have a moral duty to reveal their sources, they come down, as Lord Saville did, on the side of the journalists. At the other end of the spectrum it is hard to insist that journalistic independence should be maintained to the extent of refusing to be a witness in war crime trials.

Judgement over the Mirror photos seems pretty straightforward. The only issue of confidence here seems to be the confidence trick which was perpetrated on the newspaper. The reporters should hand the names over.

But, as examples from the world of finance and politics have shown, often the issue is far less clear. In the end we have to weigh such cases by asking what is the agenda being advanced by those who leak - and then asking whether those agendas serve or damage the public good.

When a source turns out to be wrong a judgement has to be made about whether protecting it advances accountability. The job of journalists is to protect those whistleblowers who hold the powerful up to public scrutiny. But whistleblowers have to be held accountable too. And so do journalists.

p.vallely@indpendent.co.uk

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