Journalism under threat conference, Belfast, 22/11/2003

Speech by Dr John Coulter

Northern Political Journalist with the Irish Daily Star and member of the NUJ's Belfast Branch

Ladies, gentlemen and colleagues, let me first categorically state where I stand on the issue of a journalist's confidential sources of information. For me, the fundamental ethical principle of journalism is that we have a moral imperative to give a guarantee of anonymity to those genuine confidential sources providing bona fide information. There can be no transparency in this trust which our sources must have in us as professional journalists. If we sacrifice that trust, we betray our credibility as reporters of the truth.

Likewise, if there is no trust between the confidential source and the journalist, it destroys the concept of honesty in the verification of the evidence given by that source. As a weekly newspaper editor, I faced the ultimate crisis of conscience in the aftermath of the screening of the October 1991 Channel Four Dispatches programme, The Committee. It would have been easy to get the state and perceived pro-establishment reporters off my back by revealing the identity of my Inner Circle source. I chose not to, and paid a price personally and professionally.

I have learned there is a thin line between journalism and indirectly working for the state but that thin line is still clearly recognisable in terms of ethics. As a senior lecturer in journalism in further and higher education, I have used my experiences to guide others through the ethical minefield of investigative journalism, particularly on the issue of source protection. In this respect, I strongly disagree with the ethical stance on sources taken by the reporter Nick Martin-Clarke.

Can I emphasise; I do not wish my paper here today to deteriorate into a personal character assassination of Mr Martin-Clarke. My criticisms of his ethical stance are based on his article entitled, "When a journalist must tell", in the British Journalism Review (Volume 14 Number 2, published earlier this year). Perhaps the editors of this journal might consider an article from myself entitled "Why a journalist should never tell". In his article, Mr Martin-Clarke makes the following startling confession: " ... I broke an undertaking I had given as a journalist ... " He also notes: "Equally, journalists often end up in court for refusing to divulge their sources. I, however, appeared against my source after having given an undertaking of confidentiality. Understandably therefore there was an outcry in some quarters after the verdict."

Mr Martin-Clarke attempts to justify his ethical position by stating: "An absolutist stance on confidentiality is akin to total pacifism or to not telling a lie even to save a life. It is an eccentricity that has little to offer real-world journalism." But there is an absolutist stance on source protection it's called the moral imperative to protect the identity of that source. Words may be our weapons... but our word as journalists is the moral anchor upon which our great profession is based. If we deliberately sacrifice that trust, we have cut our profession adrift and our ships known as credibility, objectivity, and believability will perish in the violent seas of suspicion and back-stabbing.

You may pose the ethical dilemma how do you survive in such a scenario? There is an old maxim, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Applied to the journalistic issue of source protection it reads if you can't keep your word, don't do the story. I've had a lifetime's association with the Boys' Brigade movement, and we have a hymn which states "will your anchor hold in the storms of life?"

In spite of all the technological developments in the past decade, modern political journalism is still weighted firmly to the ethical anchor that a good journalist never reveals his or her sources. The Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice of 1st December, 1999, made the following recommendation under the banner of Rule 15: "confidential sources": "Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information". In practical terms, for journalists on the street this advice could be interpreted as: "A journalist who has a genuine source providing bona fide information should take whatever steps are required to protect the identity of that source."

Society can scream about the public's right to privacy, but the most fundamental demand is the right to keep private the identity of confidential sources. In this respect, I speak from frontline investigative experience as one of the researchers on the October 1991 Channel Four Dispatches programme, The Committee, which probed allegations of collusion between the then Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist death squads. Whatever your views on the debate over allegations of collusion, there can be no doubting that this Dispatches programme became a watershed in investigative journalism in Northern Ireland. In 1992, Channel Four was heavily fined for refusing to tell the RUC about a source for the programme. Parts of the Prevention of Terrorism legislation were used against Channel Four and the independent producer, Box Productions, when the RUC won a court order for materials to be handed over after the Dispatches programme was broadcast.

John Wilson in his 1996 work, Understanding Journalism: A Guide to Issues, noted about this particular programme: "Channel Four and the independent producer, Box Productions, succeeded in lifting the weight from lower programme makers in the main hearings over the Northern Ireland Dispatches programme, a rare exception. They were able to do so because the police sought documents for which Channel Four and Box were responsible, not the name held in the head of an individual programme maker." For the record, the RUC issued a detailed statement in the Press in August 1992, noting, " ... the RUC wishes to assure the people of Northern Ireland and beyond that the allegations, as portrayed by the Channel Four television programme, are without foundation".

More than a decade on from the transmission of that programme, I am as firmly committed to the concept of source protection as I was in 1991 when, as a full-time journalist, I was interviewed by the RUC concerning my Inner Circle source.

I firmly believe, too, that the solution to this problem will be found in our journalist training centres.

People entering the craft of investigative journalism need to ask themselves a fundamental ethical question - how far am I prepared to go to protect the identity of a genuine source? If the wider media, and investigative journalism in particular, is to have an effective ethical strategy for this first decade of the new millennium and beyond, the media industry should address the issue of ethics at the training stage, rather than waiting until the programmes are broadcast or the articles published. One of the main vocational courses in the United Kingdom for journalist training is the NCFE NVQ Level 4 in Journalism. Ethics, based on the PCC's Code of Practice, is a fundamental part of the curriculum.

Whilst firm guidelines can be drawn up through a partnership of media educationalists and media industrialists, the individual journalist's freedom of choice must be respected. Media ethics in terms of journalist training must be a conscience-driven curriculum. The options and consequences can be explained in depth, but the fundamental principle is that each journalist must ultimately make the decision on their methods to protect source identities according to their own conscience.

The pillars of such a conscience-driven curriculum are based on the five essential questions of journalism - who, what, where, why and how? These questions need to be asked against a background of both informed theory and practical reality. Applied to the protection of sources, these questions could read:

  1. Who should journalists view as source worth protecting?
  2. What measures should journalists adopt in protecting the identity of their sources?
  3. Where should journalists look for support in the protection of these sources?
  4. Why will source protection be the key to any future code of practice for journalists?
  5. How should source protection be administered by the media industry?

But what should be our strategy for the future?

One of the foundations of a free Press is a conscience-driven ethical code. The practical loophole in this realistic observation relates to the activities of those sections of the media who clearly lack a moral conscience.

As the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, demonstrated, there is a need for the media industry to protect the public from the lunatic fringes of so-called investigative journalism. There also need to be a realistic debate concerning the ethical code of not just investigative journalism, but on the central theme of the entire craft of journalism itself; namely, what is the proper definition of "... in the public interest"?

In conclusion, if journalism is to survive as a truly free Press in the third millennium, it will have to re-define the extent to which it can genuinely protect those on the cutting edge of serious investigative research. It will also have to introduce effective means to protect society against the thug tactics of those who adopt the supposed moral code - get the story at any price, even if it means abandoning accuracy and basic decency. A starting point to this rebirth is a workable policy on source protection and the need to protect genuine confidential sources ... whatever the price.

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