It is an iron rule of journalism – probably the first lesson that a rookie reporter learns on joining a professional newsroom: never betray a confidential source. A core principle of the National Union of Journalists code of conduct states that a journalist “protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work”.
This principle is also enshrined in UK law: the 1981 Contempt of Court Act exempts journalists from contempt charges for “refusing to disclose the source of information” (with some caveats around national security and crime prevention). Under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), police cannot seize journalistic material without first making an application to a judge.
There are good reasons for such strong protections. They underpin the fundamental role of watchdog journalism in a democracy and the ability of journalists to hold the powerful to account.
We only have to think of “Deep Throat”, the famed source for Woodward and Bernstein’s exposure of Richard Nixon’s complicity in the 1970s US Watergate scandal, or the disc detailing MPs’ expenses that found its way to the Telegraph in the UK in 2009, to understand the vital importance of preserving source confidentiality.
In all probability, neither scandal would have seen the light of day if the original source had not trusted guarantees of anonymity.
What, then, do we make of the decision by journalist Isabel Oakeshott to present the Telegraph with the complete cache of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages confidentially given to her by Matt Hancock, for which she signed a non-disclosure agreement? Interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme, Oakeshott claimed an “overwhelming national interest” in breaching the golden rule of journalism.
She said: “Millions … were adversely affected by the catastrophic decision to lockdown this country repeatedly on the flimsiest of evidence, often for political reasons.” Oakeshott insists she wanted the truth to come out.
In whose interest?
There are three reasons for casting severe doubt on her stated rationale. First, by her own admission, she spent a year collaborating with Hancock on a book that was published three months ago. Since she had access to his messages at least 15 months ago, why did she wait so long to reveal information in the national interest?
Pressed on this point in the BBC interview, she said that the cache of message represented more than 2.3 million words and that the book she and Hancock were collaborating on was twice as long as the average political memoir. So her claim appears to be that she had simply not had time to do so.
Second, she deliberately chose the Telegraph for her exclusive, a paper which is known, as is Oakeshott herself, for its profound editorial hostility to – and partisan coverage of – the scale of lockdown measures.
It would surely have been more responsible, having decided to break an agreement of confidentiality on the grounds of public interest, to do so via a non-partisan broadcaster or to make the messages available online for everyone to make their own judgement.
Third, a full public inquiry has been established. Led by Baroness Hallett, its remit is designed precisely to examine responses to the pandemic both by health authorities and by the government.
A genuine public interest response to any concerns raised by the former health secretary’s messages would surely be to hand them over to that inquiry where they could be properly contextualised and analysed, rather than allow them to be selectively quoted in pursuit of a journalistic agenda.
Instead, we are now seeing cherry-picked messages published piecemeal to further support the Telegraph’s own editorial position. Crucially, they are being published without any input from the scientific community about its expert advice on the urgent need for intervention.
In fact, rather than serving the public interest, these revelations are more likely to cause longer-term damage both to public health and to journalism. Selective publication of Hancock’s messages has successfully raised doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of government lockdown measures without any counter arguments from medical experts or scientists.
Should we be exposed to another full-scale public health crisis which requires government action on the advice of those experts, we will surely have less faith in any restrictions imposed by politicians. Such resistance would no doubt delight the libertarians, but could have dire consequences for public health and safety.
But the damage to journalism could be even greater. Next time someone discovers corruption or wrongdoing at the highest level and wants to blow the whistle on, say, a powerful cabinet member or a wealthy industrialist at significant personal risk to themselves, will they be quite so ready to trust a journalist’s promise of confidentiality?
At the very least, Oakeshott’s apparent readiness to betray her source – whatever her stated justification – is likely to generate even more cynicism about an industry that already struggles to command public confidence.
We can be fairly confident that any whistleblower will stay very clear of Oakeshott who – we should not forget – has form in giving up sources in the Chris Huhne-Vicky Pryce affair which ended in the pair both being jailed for perverting the course of justice.
But high-profile incidents like these will surely make it less likely that such public-spirited individuals will be prepared to risk their own livelihood in the public interest. The only beneficiaries will be the rich and powerful who will continue to escape proper scrutiny.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University where he has taught journalism students for nearly 30 years. He is on the management and editorial boards of the British Journalism Review. He is a member of the British Broadcasting Challenge which campaigns for Public Service Broadcasting. He is on the board of Hacked Off.