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Onora O’Neill said in a BBC Reith Lecture some years ago: “I am still looking for ways to ensure that journalists do not publish stories for which there is no source at all, while pretending that there is a source to be protected.”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”.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty