Without confidential sources, the news media would be much reduced in its importance. Virtually every major organisation in the private or public sectors goes to great lengths to make sure journalists only get authorised information about their operations. Confidential sources remain the best way to reveal what is really happening.
The jailing of whistleblower Sarah Tisdall has caused lasting embarrassment at The Guardian, where journalists argued that the editor should have defied the court order and gone to jail himself rather than betray the source.
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But there is accidental or careless exposure. Some critics maintain that the way BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan described the source in his ‘sexed-up’story could only have fitted three or four people, of which Dr David Kelly was one.
As the journalism lecturer Stephen Doig has said: ‘When a reporter promises confidentiality to a source, he or she should be prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure the identity isn’t revealed, whether deliberately or through carelessness.’
For all that, journalists do usually protect their sources. The freelance journalist Robin Ackroyd had the shadow of a jail sentence hanging over him for seven years until the courts finally ruled against the challenge to his refusal to reveal his source in the NHS.
The Tisdall case has provided hard lessons for the media. The Guardian’s greatest mistake was to keep the original documents and this led to the identification of Tisdall.
If a source supplies you with documents, then dispose of the material so that you cannot be ordered by a judge to hand it over. You may find them seized in a police raid. The obvious thing to do is destroy the documents, regardless of the fact it could cause problems should there be a later libel case.
Once you realise you have a confidential source, minimise the evidence you accumulate identifying the person. Modern technology is a problem in all sorts of ways. Today we leave an electronic trail everywhere we go. You may keep your notes on computer, but how many times do you back them on to an unprotected external hard drive or disc?
If your source has provided you with good information, and your story has been splashed, assume that someone will investigate. They might be an unscrupulous private investigator, the police, or even the security services. The first thing any of these will do is get your phone records to see who you have been phoning and texting. Next they will be after your emails.
If there is compromising exchanges between you and your source then this is high risk. Even Googling your sources’ name, to check them out, can leave corroborative evidence.
There are some simple tips: Try to avoid electronic communication with your sources; meet face to face; both you and your source should turn your phones off long before meeting, otherwise your phone can be used to approximate your location; try to meet away from CCTV cameras.
If you use the phone or email, do not use names. The best method is for the reporter to use two pay-to-go phones that are not traceable. Give one of the phones to your source and explain that the phone should only be used for communicating with you. If you use email, create anonymous Hotmail-style accounts, but not on your personal computer.
You can’t be too careful. In 2006 The Washington Post accidentally gave telling details of a hacker, who was also acting as a confidential source, by publishing on its website a photo that included hidden data about where it was taken.
It is vital that journalists protect their sources. Every source revealed will put off other potential sources talking to the media.