Journalism under threat conference, Belfast, 22/11/2003
Speech by Nicholas Jones
No clearer example of the danger faced by whistleblowers and leakers than the fate of Dr David Kelly. Became a victim of a media feeding frenzy. But we know who started that. Alastair Campbell's diaries indicated how Kelly's name would be used against Andrew Gilligan... how once the source was revealed it would stuff Gilligan and the BBC. Campbell was ever the information trader - and the currency for that deal was of course name Kelly. The BBC's management - to the great surprise of former BBC correspondents like myself - not only refused to reveal Kelly's name right up until the very last moment but also got stuck into defending itself against Campbell and his allegation that large parts of the BBC had an anti-war agenda.
Obviously a lot didn't go well in all of this either for Gilligan or the BBC. A lot of lessons have been learned. But I was impressed by the way the BBC responded as an institution. Knowledge of the name and Kelly's identity was restricted to senior editorial staff; the management didn't know the name, as the chairman Gavyn Davies, revealed, he read of it first in a letter from Geoff Hoon. I accept a lot of issues thrown up by the Hutton Inquiry which I am sure we can pick up during questions.
I am in a position to look at this with a degree of detachment and, as I am sure you must all understand, there is nothing new about clashes between the BBC and the government of the day.
My first serious dispute with management - on this question of sources - was back at the start of the 1980s and the infamous Stockport Messenger dispute involving Eddie Shah and the former print union, the NGA. He was seen as a hero by the popular press - because he was of course he was taking on the print unions which the proprietors were only too keen to smash. The truth was that Shah had no intention really of negotiating with the union... he wanted to push through new working practices and knew he had the support of the then Conservative government. In of my reports I disclosed that even professional negotiators at the conciliation service ACAS realised that Shah was playing ducks and drakes with them...
Not surprisingly my report caused a row. I remember there were a lot of complaints, mainly from Tory Mps, and after it had all gone backwards and forwards, I was called in by the secretary to the BBC governors to account for my reporting. What I was asked was the basis for this. Finally I remember having to reveal that it had come right from the top, from Sir Pat Lowry, chairman of ACAS. I don't think my revelation of the name went any further but I was always cross with myself whenever I thought about it. I knew I had been used and should have stood my ground.
One of the problems now is that we don't understand the courage of many of our sources... people in the know who really are prepared, at great risk to themselves.
They are the people who we do need - who will give really valuable information to journalists - but we rather devalue their courage by what I consider are all the phoney unsourced stories that seem to fill the papers at the moment and take up a lot of air time as well on the BBC. At the root of this, at least in political reporting, are political spin doctors ... Alastair Campbell & Co ... who trade information on an anonymous basis. They take advantage of the demand for exclusive so they plant stories and hope in return to get favourable coverage. I must say I do rather wince when I hear a newsreader say the "BBC has learned... " even "learned exclusively" about some new government initiative or other. Obviously it's just spin.
We, the broadcasters, have taken the information and in return for what we think is an exclusive give it the prominence and perhaps slant which the spin doctors desire. And they also get what they want - which is anonymity. That's is my greatest complaint against Campbell... I think that trade in unsourced government stories - just look at the Sunday papers to see what I mean - has done nothing for political journalism... it's like a cancer eating away at the probity of our work.
I've been talking to leakers in research for my latest book. I have been really struck by the risks they take. Yes sometimes these people do get a buzz out of leaking - it can become addictive, seeing your stories in print or on TV.
I think there is no doubt for example that Dr David Kelly liked talking to journalists. He was prepared - as the evidence has shown - to impart information which was way outside the scope of his authorisation - which was to explain technical details about chemical and biological weapons and inspections. But Kelly was clearly doing it out of what he believed was the public interest; he wanted a wider debate. And that goes for the other leakers that I have spoken to - they want information to get out, perhaps to help a trade union or make it more difficult for the management or to expose the government for political reasons. They're certainly not doing it for money, or for personal recognition or glory.
Then of course we come to the whistleblowers who really do need our protection - those who are prepared to speak out when they see safety being breached or perhaps improper or unlawful activity. They are the people who really need protecting.
There is a 1988 local authority act designed to give protection to whistleblowers, especially in local authorities.... Unison has even done a booklet on it... but Unison's experience on the ground is that anyone who does speak out - and speaks anonymously to the media - is identified, they are likely to be thrown to the wolves, just like Dr Kelly.
Six Metropolitan authorities in the north west have all been surveyed and admitted to Unison that if a member of staff did blow the whistle on something, the authority would be unable to afford any real protection. If the source was discovered that name would be circulated through the relevant department and the source likely to be identified... so no real protection.
So the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom would like to see better protection for whistleblowers, for those people who have acted in public interest and who have spoken to journalists at great cost to themselves. Government departments, public bodies and local authorities say they will protect people in such circumstances - but there is little evidence of this.