When journalistic confidence marginalises “the more basic and important obligation not to deceive”…

Michael Foley is professor emeritus of journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). Writing in the Irish Times he picks up on an interesting angle arising out of Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s opening remarks at the Disclosures Tribunal:

At the opening of the Garda whistleblower tribunal, the tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton, said he wanted to know if the media was being “used as an instrument for the dissemination of lies”.

For most people his remarks are perfectly reasonable, but for journalists, he has stepped into an ethical minefield.

The judge’s comments related to the issue of journalistic privilege – the right to maintain the anonymity of a source of information. If it existed at all, he said, it was because there was a public interest in protecting investigations by the media.

But “does journalistic privilege attach to communications to a journalist where that . . . may not be in the public interest but, instead, where the source is perhaps solely motivated by detraction or calumny?”. Or does such privilege apply when the media is used as a tool of “naked deceit”?

As Professor Foley points out, whilst there is barely a code of ethics which does not enumerate protection of confidential sources of information, it is not a privilege under the law. The question, therefore, is purely an ethical rather than a legal one.

Why should the public trust journalists who offer so much information without any meaningful indication of where it came from? In many cases the anonymous source is not a fearless whistleblower, but a manipulating spin doctor working for the rich and powerful and hiding behind a journalist’s promise of anonymity.

If that is the case, who gains most by the journalists’ willingness to go to prison rather than reveal a source: the source or the public? As the philosopher Onora O’Neill said in a BBC Reith Lecture some years ago: “I am still looking for ways to ensure that journalists do not publish stories for which there is no source at all, while pretending that there is a source to be protected.”

With anonymity, the source holds all the cards. A decision to give anonymity has to be agreed before the information is given, so that before the journalist has heard what the source has to say, he or she has given a binding undertaking never to reveal the name, whatever the outcome.

If that outcome leads to a miscarriage of justice, for instance, is that going to instil confidence in another person whose information is of great public interest, but who now fears giving it to a person who would rather see a guilty person go free than give a name to a court?

Professor O’Neill in one of her 2002 Reith Lectures, pointed to several sources for a rise in a culture of suspicion: not least “the new ideal of the information age: transparency, which has marginalised the more basic and important obligation not to deceive”.

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  • Gingray

    You sure he is not a former wrestler?



    I remember a time when journalists just informed us what was happening, now many have become players and have their own agenda.Journalists themselves must take the blame.standards have been lowered,.when you pick up a Sunday newspaper and know from experience exactly what certain journalists have written journalism suffers.
    ..It took a long time for Garda McCabe to get traction from either politicians or journalists. just a few TDs and a few journalists persisted.A very experienced judge is now appointed lets hope the truth wins out.No lies,or
    rushing to other courts

  • chrisjones2

    In the ECHR the key driver is clearly Article 10

    “Freedom of expression

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right
    shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart
    information and ideas without interference by public authority
    and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States
    from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema

    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it
    duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities,
    conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and
    are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national
    security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention
    of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for
    the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing
    the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for
    maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

    So there is protection but it is qualified in some cases. This was clarified in the UK in

    “Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom. …
    Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in
    informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog
    role of the press may be undermined, and the ability of the press to provide accurate
    and reliable information be adversely affected. … [A]n order of source disclosure …
    cannot be compatible with Article 10 of the Convention unless it is justified by an
    overriding requirement in the public interest.”

    (Goodwin v. the United Kingdom,
    judgment of 27 March 1996, § 39).

    I suggest that there can be fewer stronger public interests than where a whistleblower reports serious wrongdoing by the top echelons of the Police and is
    then hounded with false allegations deliberately leaked as part of an alleged plan to destroy him.

    I wish the panel good luck …I dont think privilidge protects in this case

  • Granni Trixie

    I suspect, though in serious mode in the quote above, he is a former contributor to Fortnight who also wrote whacky novels:
    “The Passion of Jamsie Coyle” and “The Road to Notown”.

    great to know that he is still with us (if indeed this is who he is).

  • aquifer

    Often deference is the price of access, so politicians are sanitised who should instead be hounded out of office. And would some journalists trade access to a great silvery shoal of material from a police source for a few red smelly herrings thrown in amongst it? Finding or writing good stuff every week must be really hard. It is clearly beyond the capacity of some Daily Mail columnists.

  • Nevin

    I pay little attention to dodgy journalistic claims such as ‘senior party sources said’ but the ill-informed/sheep may be easily taken in.

    Then there’s the notorious ‘has consistently denied any wrongdoing’ which could easily be absorbed as ‘guilty as hell’.