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    Wednesday, 5 December 2007

    Damned if you do... the travails of source protection

    A story I had missed in the Observer a couple of weekends ago highlights well the quandary facing journalists / authors who wish to protect their sources. Its another Irish case, and involves the refusal of the author of a book on the widespread abuse of drugs in Irish society to disclose the identity of interviewees ranging through nuns, pilots, lawyers, business people, to - importantly - a Government Minister.

    The author in question, Justine Delaney Wilson, insists that she had recorded various of the interviews on which the book was based including that with the Minister. On legal advice, however, she destroyed the tapes. This is standard practice to avoid the risks of forced documentary disclosure under legal discovery powers, as it allows the journalist to retain such information only in their head.

    With heads pushed resoundingly into the sand, many and various luminaries - including the Justice Minister - have condemned Delaney Wilson and challenged the authenticity of her work. Her inability to produce the evidence is treated as confirmation that it never existed, and is taken to undermine her account. This stance is almost laughable for its complacency and obvious discrepancy with lived experience.

    Although it looks like she will not face legal sanction, the percussive criticism she has endured has - ironically - served to focus attention on the question of her credibility as a journalist. Her experience highlights the dilemma faced by journalists who aspire to the ethical route of protecting confidences. Either they must elect to suffer personal punishment (legal or otherwise), or risk damage to individual informants, journalists' relations with sources generally, and social understanding of important issues.

    Or maybe she's just a self-promoting charlatan...

    1 comment:

    Andrew Scott said...

    For some background on this story, see the following:

    - Author under pressure to name Irish cabinet minister who took cocaine

    ... or try a search for 'delaney wilson' on the Irish Times website.