Friday. 19 December 2014

Secure dropbox: Tell us in confidence


Commentary: why The Sun is ‘crazed’ over betrayal of sources

Journalists’ contacts were betrayed before to protect News Corporation, says NUJ leader

Journalists and sources alike were betrayed in a mission with only one purpose – the preservation of an empire

Not content with shopping sources to the police, executives at News UK are instructing journalists on The Sun to identify contacts on expenses claims.

To expect journalists effectively to commit career suicide and document their meetings with sources, naming them in the process, should beggar belief. But, as revealed by Exaro last week, this is the latest crazed move from a company that used to pride itself on its stance to defend Press freedom and stand up for journalistic principles.

Protecting your sources is about as fundamental a journalistic tenet as there is, a responsibility that – until the wheels started to come off the News Corp bus – any journalist could rightly expect to be a shared principle between employee and employer.

When the reputation and future of Rupert Murdoch, his company and his kin were threatened in the wake of the scandal over phone hacking, News Corporation did the unthinkable. It did so with the sole purpose of protecting the corporation.

Out went journalistic principles, concern about Press freedom and sheer common decency. Handing over huge tranches of documentation and data without any warrant or production order was a calculated and cynical, commercial move.

That it included confidential e-mails between journalists and their sources, information about payments to whistleblowers for stories that were demonstrably in the public interest, clearly did not matter to the decision makers at News UK.

That individual journalists have since been subjected to dawn arrests, thrown to the wolves and their lives left in limbo was seen merely as collateral damage to Murdoch’s senior managers.

No thought was given to the broader impact on the trust that whistle-blowers can have in coming forward to journalists. If it had, this latest daft idea of shopping sources’ identities in expenses claims – that can, no doubt, be later wheeled out when the police come knocking – would never have been considered.

Journalists’ careers depend on the quality of their contacts books. Journalists have to be able to promise sources that they can be trusted not to breach confidentiality.

For the National Union of Journalists and its members, the one overriding responsibility of any journalist – a core principle enshrined in the NUJ’s code of conduct – is the protection of sources. It is a vital aspect of a free press that whistle-blowers and sources can come forward and share information that they believe the public should know, in the certain knowledge that their identities will be protected.

Journalists also expect the protection that they have promised their sources will be honoured by their employers or the media organisations for which they are writing.

When it was revealed that News Corporation was shopping sources to the police in this way, the union had calls from whistle-blowers, terrified at what was coming down the line. They felt betrayed, with promises struck between them and the journalist broken.

This was astounding for the journalists concerned. They had always upheld the fundamental tenet, understood by not only the industry, but by the public, that a reporter never reveals a source.

No one could ever have predicted that some senior executives at News Corporation would ever have betrayed journalistic sources in this way – not the staff, nor freelances, nor the readers and wider public. News Corporation owns The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, The Times and The Sunday Times via News UK, formerly known as News International.

Journalists and sources alike were betrayed in a mission with only one purpose – the preservation of an empire.

Sources cannot trust News UK, as Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City university, has made clear.

And Sun journalists cannot trust their management. My advice to them is that if they have to have sources and if they have to have whistle-blowers on expenses claims, then make sure they are all called Mickey Mouse.

Michelle Stanistreet is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

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