‘Go to jail rather than reveal your source’is the one immutable rule of good journalism. It’s the fixed point on the ethical firmament to which all other journalism principles are anchored, and reflects the highest aspiration of reporting – to inform the public whatever the personal cost to the journalist.
The NUJ‘s general secretary, Jeremy Dear, has emphasised that sources must be protected as they ‘will not come forward if they think they are going to be grassed-up at a later stage”. As a media commentator, Tim Luckhurst has said: ‘The legend of Deep Throat runs deep and, to British journalists, it conveys a solitary absolute: Confidential sources must never be identified while they are alive.”
But what exactly is a source, why do journalists take the ‘go to jail’stance, and how do you protect sources?
At the risk of being pedantic, let’s spell out what a source is. Sometimes called ‘whistleblowers”, they are best described as a ‘confidential source”, to distinguish from other sources of information. Most often it’s a person within an organisation who gives you, the journalist – on the condition of anonymity – information that they are not authorised to provide and that reveals wrongdoing.
This could vary from a police officer telling you about corruption within their force, to a civil servant revealing a cover-up, through to a worker telling you about health and safety breaches in the company they work for.
Finding and ‘running’a confidential source is one of the most difficult tasks facing a reporter. Very few people are prepared to risk their livelihoods and possibly their freedom to provide information about wrongdoing in their workplace.
Of the few insiders that do, even fewer are straightforward about it. Most have mixed motives and the stress of passing information, in my experience, can make them very hard to deal with at a personal level. I cannot tell you how many hours of my life I have spent in pubs and cafes trying to reassure a source about what they are doing. But there can be the bonus that sometimes confidential sources will decide to go public.
When I was making a programme for Channel 4’s Dispatches on a cervical screening scandal at Canterbury, a technician who had been acting as a confidential source finally agreed to be filmed. This gave the programme much greater authority with an insider on record.
If journalists could not guarantee anonymity to their sources, they would find that many politicians, lawyers, scientists, and civil servants would not talk to them – and vital disclosures would not be published.
The journalist’s right to protect confidential sources is a principle that is recognised in European and British law. This was established after a difficult struggle by Bill Goodwin, who, as a young journalist on the Engineer magazine in 1990, was hauled through the courts because a contact had passed him information from a company document. But it is not an automatic legal right, and it often falls to judges to decide whether the journalist was acting in the wider public interest. If the judge orders the journalist to reveal their source they must refuse.
Sources have been betrayed, if not deliberately. In 1984, the The Guardian was sent photocopies of two classified documents about the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain. When the Government demanded them back in order to identify of the mole, the paper eventually produced them. This exposed Sarah Tisdall, a young clerk in the office of the foreign secretary Michael Heseltine, who had passed documents on to the paper. Ms Tisdall ended up spending four months in prison.