Never Reveal Sources
The Pensive Quill
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Former Blanket columnist and guest writer Dr John Coulter maintains the final outcome of the Boston College tapes legal saga will have long-term implications for journalists reporting political and paramilitary developments in Ireland.
One cold October morning in 1991 when I was Editor of one of County Antrim’s oldest weekly newspapers, the Carrickfergus Advertiser and East Antrim Gazette, one of my most reliable loyalist contacts met me on the way into the office and told me to my face that I was to be shot dead.
At the time I was being investigated by the police concerning my role as a commissioned researcher on the controversial Channel Four’s Dispatches programme, The Committee, which had probed allegations of collusion between the then Royal Ulster Constabulary, the then Ulster Defence Regiment and members of loyalist death squads.
At that time in 1991, the Troubles were still raging. It would be another three years before the loyalist and republican paramilitary ceasefires would be declared and another seven years until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
In journalistic terms, collusion was a taboo subject. But I had a confidential source within the so-called RUC Inner Circle, the secret organisation planning the murder of republican suspects.
I had known this source since 1986. While there had been a predictable media backlash from Unionists over the screening of the Dispatches programme, I was rather taken aback by the coldness with which usually friendly loyalist source informed me of my fate.
I was not to be shot because of my participation in the programme because I come from a Unionist, Orange, Irish Presbyterian background. I was to be shot to ensure my silence over the identity of my sources.
I had given my word to the RUC Inner Circle source and a subsequent senior commander in the then highly-active Ulster Resistance paramilitary group that I would not reveal their identities. The sources were linked.
The problem was there was nothing then in law which could give legal muscle to my declarations of anonymity to my sources. It was just my word as a journalist. In this specific loyalist source’s interpretation, the only way to fully guarantee anonymity was to put a bullet through my head.
The Press Complaints Commission’s and National Union of Journalists’ Codes of Practice are very clear on the identity of source protection. My interpretation of these codes is – don’t betray your confidential sources.
I am on record as going a step further. If you cannot keep your mouth shut about genuine sources who supply you with confidential information, then don’t become a journalist.
In journalism, too, I have had the opportunity to meet and interview people and organisations with which I radically disagree. But I am not paid to agree or disagree – just to report the truth.
I am firmly convinced if the Boston Tapes debate is lost by my two journalistic colleagues, Dr Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney, there will be disastrous long-term consequences for investigative journalism in Ireland.
Just as the Historical Enquiries Team is investigating unsolved deaths during the conflict, there is the real possibility that if a situation arises where the Boston College tapes are handed over to the British Government, then the British and Irish authorities could begin investigating other journalistic sources.
This may seem like scaremongering and sensationalising, but my own personal experience is that people who use violence to pursue their political agenda could also use that violence against journalists if they think their identities have been compromised.
This has been especially true of my investigations into the Far Right in Ireland. In 2003, I interviewed a senior member of the Ku Klux Klan in Ireland as part of an investigation for an article entitled ‘The Orange Swastika’ which was published in the anti-racist magazine, Searchlight International.
The KKK source arrived at my home and issued a chilling threat as to what would happen to me if his identity became public.
To be able to write about conflict, journalists must have the ability to be able to give guarantees of anonymity to confidential sources. To this extent, journalists have to make up their minds whether they are reporters first, or citizens of the state first.
Opponents of this argument will respond with the ‘what-iffery’ tactic – what if your source turns out to be a paedophile? What if your source says they either harmed someone or plan to harm someone?
But the key factor linking journalist and confidential source is trust. I, as a journalist, trust the confidential source that the information I am being given is genuine. The confidential source, as well, trusts me as a reporter that when I say I will grant anonymity that I am genuine in that offer.
If, after having given my word to that confidential source, I deliberately break that trust by revealing his or her identity, who will ever trust me again with confidential information? I become nothing more than a common tout.
I also have a spiritual concern about the legal outcome of the Boston Tapes issue. What guides me in life is my deeply personal evangelical Christian faith. I am a born-again believer. I have never said that makes me perfect, only saved.
One consequence if the Boston Tapes are handed over to the British is that other journalists could be forced under law to give up their notes or identities of their confidential sources.
What impression of born again Christianity would people have if they heard me giving up the identities of confidential sources just to save my own neck legally?
Likewise, as a born again believer, the Holy Bible is to me the Inspired Word of God. It has been a guiding light in my life.
If I was asked in court to swear on that Book to tell the truth and the question was asked to reveal the identity of confidential sources, what would I do? Again – while it may at this stage only be a fictional scenario – I have taken the decision that I will not betray my faith and I would refuse to answer the question.
Professionally, I am a journalist first. Personally, I am a born again Christian first. I am not a corner-street tub thumper. Many of the paramilitary sources I have interviewed over my 30 plus years as a reporter are atheists, agnostics, or are crazy fundamentalists.
But I do not want them to make a judgement on the evangelical Christian faith because I betrayed their confidence just to protect my own neck.
There is also the example journalists like myself will set to the next generation of reporters. How can we call ourselves beacons of good practice if we reveal our sources?
Much more than the fate of the contents of the Boston Tapes is at stake if Dr McIntyre and Mr Moloney lose this case. The very future of confidentiality of genuine sources – and ultimate the safety of journalists – is at stake.