The row over who was to blame for the death of Dr David Kelly last Thursday has largely centred on one question: Should the BBC have named him as their single source for the infamous "dodgy dossier" story?
For the outsider, this might seem like hacks simply guarding their own interests – after all, we don’t want our colleagues finding out who our best sources are and stealing them.
However, the anonymity of sources is essential not only to the profession of journalism, but also to the preservation of free speech and the scrutiny of power. David Kelly is by now an over-used example, but without him would we have found out about the "sexing-up" of the Iraqi weapons dossier?
If any proof was needed of the importance of Andrew Gilligan’s story then it comes from the government’s extreme reaction.
So it was vital that the story was reported, therefore it was vital that Kelly was allowed to remain anonymous.
Without journalists’ commitment to keeping sources secret, nobody would ever break the silence again.
In some cases, it is far more than jobs at stake when people talk to the press.
There can be few journalists willing to put people’s safety at serious risk when pressed to disclose sources, but it is cases like this that normally command the most publicity and the most pressure on the journalist in question.
In these cases a journalist might be tempted to forego the golden rule of their trade in order to see a criminal brought to justice, but one should always consider the wider picture when tackling these dilemmas – if you expose one source to identification, your reputation will be tarnished and other potential sources are unlikely to trust you in the future, taking us back to the early point about sources being our most prized possession.
If a large amount of journalists start betraying sources, the profession as a whole will be damaged as no-one will want to talk to us (the NUJ recently took the unusual step of expelling one of its members for this very reason).
So journalists should be in no doubt they have a duty to themselves and their fellow professionals – not to mention the sources themselves – to protect sources whatever the circumstances.
A number of cases through the years have shaped the law’s current stance on source confidentiality, but many journalists still feel there is too little protection.
- The protection of national security
- The detection or prevention of crime
- The interests of justice
(Contempt of Court Act 1981, section 10)
As with most things in law, these criteria leave much room for manouver and judges still tend to try and identify sources.
In the 1990s, another key case gave journalists more protection.
Another defence that journalists protecting their sources may argue in court – particularly if the judge’s willingness to force you to reveal your source(s) comes under "the interests of justice" – is that the identity of the source is not actually essential as long as the information they passed on is reliable.
In his evidence to the select committee on June 18, Andrew Gilligan said: "I have described him [David Kelly, at this point still unnamed] as one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier and I can tell you that he is a source of longstanding, well-known to me, closely connected with the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, easily sufficiently senior and credible to be worth reporting."
Under oath, a reporter would be able to argue that as long as a satisfactory amount of detail was given about – but without actually naming or identifying – the source, then the information provided by this source would be worth taking into account, without the need to know who the specific source was.
With regard to notebooks and other such materials that could identify a source, it should be remembered that the police cannot seize these without an order from a Crown Court, which can be challenged by the journalist before the seizure takes place.
Despite the protection afforded to journalists under law, unions argue that the rules should give us even more safety.