Journalists’ Sources

In 2003 in Northern Ireland, Clifford McKeown was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a murder committed 7 years earlier. Nick Martin-Clark, the freelance journalist who received the confessions when interviewing McKeown in prison[1] published the story in the Sunday Times. He also testified in court against him, in spite of his promise to McKeown to keep it secret.Martin-Clark’s action aroused indignation from the journalist community. He was consequently excluded from the National Union of Journalists. Furthermore, he has since then been under a witness protection programme. In 2005 in the United States, the New York Times reporter Judith Miller was imprisoned for refusing to give in court the identity of the source who named Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. She spent 85 days in jail, but having received too much exposure as a result of this story, was then fired from the newspaper.In both cases, those journalists put their careers –and even their lives- at risk, having dealt with the sacrosanct matter of the confidentiality of their sources. In these two cases, one common question is at stake though: When is a journalist under a responsibility to tell?  More significantly even, how it is possible to find the right balance between ethics, public interest and justice? 

Subsequently to McKeown’s story, the journalist Nick Martin-Clark (2003) tried to explain his actions arguing that Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ Ethics Committee, once told him ‘that it was sometimes permissible to “act as a citizen”’.[2] Journalists are citizens, and when “there is an overriding public interest in identifying the sources”[3], the reporters’ duty of confidentiality should not be unconditional. However, I believe that this kind of situation should remain exceptional, as defined by the law,[4] and only be applied when justice is the only way of ensuring public wellbeing. In John v Express,[5] Lord Woolf (2000) observed: “…before the courts require journalists to break what a journalist regards as the most important professional obligation to protect a source, the minimum requirement is that other avenues should be explored”.[6] In fact, even if no one is above the law, a good journalist cannot do his job properly acting only from a “citizen’s point of view”. Through his political, religious, cultural beliefs, a citizen is anything but objective. On the other hand, objectivity should be the essence of a good journalist. Beyond any consideration, the protection of sources of information must be a priority.[7]  

Indeed, revealing sources can be very dangerous for both sources and journalists. In my view, ethics and morality should be, as a consequence, the professional’s main concerns when dealing with the protection of sources. Even if there are circumstances under which journalists should not protect their sources (see above), breaking a pact of confidentiality reveals a lack of integrity from the reporter whom sources trust. Some people put their lives in danger to speak to reporters. Therefore, the European Court of Human Rights (2002) stated that “sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest”.[8] And this would be a real backward step for the profession. Moreover, as Geneva Overholser (2004) says, it is “incontestable that some information vital to a democratic public will reach it only through the protection of confidentiality”.[9] 

This means that a journalist has to be able to justify why, in the public interest, revealing his source is more important than all the wrongdoings that could be disclosed to the public through the source’s revelations. When Martin-Clark (2003) explained to justify what he did that “he felt he could not live knowing such a secret”[10], it clearly proves that he followed his human instincts before his journalistic ones. I do not mean that journalists are robots who cannot have feelings.  I mean rather, that Martin-Clark ran counter to the code of deontology that hallows professional confidentiality. In other words, could you imagine a criminal’s lawyer bound by strict confidentiality, revealing to the court that he knew his client was a dangerous murderer? It would be totally against the rules of ethics. Comparing both professions on the issue of professional confidentiality, Pete Williams from America’s NBC News (2006) said, “It’s the client’s privilege that the lawyer is protecting […] So by comparison here […] it is the source’s privilege that the journalist is protecting”[11]. 

Taking into account these facts, I would argue that Martin-Clark should not have disclosed the identity of his source, no matter what the revelation was. In Martin-Clark’s case, no impending danger was harming public safety. His anonymous source did not reveal he was about to commit a crime; this man had already killed and was serving a sentence at the time of his interview with the freelance journalist. In this kind of situation, the protection of the professional relationship between the journalist and his source is much more important than the actual worth of the information collected. As Rachid Nini (2007) said to justify his refusal to cooperate with justice, “I am a journalist, not a cop”[12]. On the other hand, Judith Miller’s decision not to disclose her source is questionable. It is well known how dangerous it is for an undercover CIA agent to be named. Moreover, it would have been in the public interest to reveal what some members of the American government were hiding from their citizens about the invasion of Iraq.

Despite laws protecting journalists’ sources, many courtrooms, even in democratic countries, still consider the refusal of journalists to disclose their sources as an obstruction of justice. This is to say that protecting their sources is a responsibility that journalists have to take on their own, most of the time. A journalist cannot do a good job without a deep concern for ethics and morality. Sources are a gold mine for reporters, and in consequence, a journalist should never give his word to a source lightly. Only serious cases defined by the law should allow a journalist to break a promise. To avoid being confronted by such problems, journalists should appeal to anonymous sources carefully. Relying on anonymous sources is often a risky way, and it has been proved several times in the past that some whistleblowers are not always well-intentioned. The actual job of a journalist is to inform the public, and as often as possible, to make people speak “on the record”. The “off the record” practice should never become automatic, when other ways remain possible to get a piece of information. That would prevent many journalists from being jailed on behalf of the protection of sources.

[1] The Queen v Clifford John McKeown [2003] WEAC3898 

[2] Oberoi, J. (2006). The Source of All Trouble…Revelations and Reservations. Available from [Accessed 3 January 2008]

 [3] Goodwin v UK (1996) 22 EHRR 123.These circumstances are clearly defined by the law in Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and refer to “national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals and protection of the reputation or rights of others”.  

[4] Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms provides exceptions to the immunity from disclosure in case of “national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals and protection of the reputation or rights of others”. 

 [5]  Morland J in John v Express [2000] 1 All ER 280 

[6] Spilsbury, S (2000). Media Law. Routledge Cavendish.


 [7] Council of Europe, Recommendation n° R (2000) 7 In its recommendation of 8 March 2000 on the right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information, the Council of Europe declared to be “Convinced that the protection of journalists’ sources of information constitutes a basic condition for journalistic work and freedom as well as for the freedom of the media”

[8] Goodwin v. the UK [2002] 28957/95

[9] Overholser, G. (2004). The Journalist and the Whistle-Blower. New York Times online.Available from[Accessed 16 December 2007]                          

[10] Donovan, P. (2003).  Speaking ill of the dead. Guardian Unlimited.Available from,,1025985,00.html [Accessed 3 January 2008] 

 [11] Oberoi, J. (2006). The Source of All Trouble…Revelations and Reservations. Available from [Accessed 3 January 2008] 

[12] Manager of the Arabic-speaking daily newspaper Al Massae.Heard on September 28th, 2007 by the Crown prosecutor in Casablanca, he was asked to reveal the identity of sources which had denounced traffics of royal pardons.


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