Source Protection Be Damned: Just Get a Scoop

The attempt by NBC News to plunder the Boston College oral history archive is nothing short of reprehensible journalistic pirating. I first learned of it when roused from my sleep around 4 am this morning by my wife who had been alerted by a friend to the story when Ed Moloney ran it as breaking news on his blog, The Broken Elbow. She and I were both outraged by it.

The “breaking news” on Ed Moloney’s site was a letter from NBC News asking U.S. Federal Judge William Young to turn over the Belfast Project transcripts to them. In its action, the network is attempting to make a flawed public interest claim in an attempt gain access to the confidential materials and sources at the heart of the Belfast Project.

After a prolonged battle in American courts buttressed by a legal fight in a British courtroom we might be forgiven for imagining that journalists and media outlets would be more sensitive than usual to the need for source protection in light of the sustained assault on the Boston College Archive by British political policing agencies.

There are two kinds of issues when it comes to the public interest. There is the public’s right to know what their government is doing in their name and there is the right of journalists to protect their confidential sources so that the public can be better informed. If there is not source protection, there will be no sources and important stories will evaporate. It is a balancing act that every reputable journalist respects and adheres to.

That a major news agency should step in and attempt to do what the British Police Service of Northern Ireland has done is an outrageous and egregious act. It is doubtful that NBC would take the same action if this involved a source protection case in the United States. They would be vilified by American journalists for such an action. Earlier today I told the BBC that “I am furious that a news agency is trying to expose sources. I am extremely hostile to this action.”

NBC’s legal action comes at a time when there is an organized Sinn Fein hate campaign underway against those it accuses of having been involved in the Boston College project. This campaign has threatened the safety of participants, the lead researchers and individuals that had no involvement whatsoever in the project.

It is a long standing tradition and obligation of all journalists to protect sources of confidential information from all harm that might accrue to them*. NBC is clearly unconcerned with the fate of the people involved in the Belfast Project. The Boston College Archive story has been going on for three years, and yet it is only now, in the wake of Gerry Adams' arrest, that NBC has shown much interest in the case. Instead of spending time and resources on the story, they have simply gone to court to get at sources and material in an attempt to make headlines during Gerry Adam’s upcoming visit to the United States. At minimum, it is lazy journalism.

What is egregious is that they are attempting to set a very dangerous legal precedent. Their request has been submitted to Judge Young, the same judge that a U.S. Appellate Court slapped down when Judge Young tried to hand over parts of the Boston College archive that wasn’t even responsive to the subpoenas. If NBC is successful in their request, they may find down the road that they will bear responsibility for piercing a bigger hole in source protection laws which are already under assault by governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

NBC News is only concerned not with the protection of sources but with creating headlines that might accrue from getting ‘the dirt’ on Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams who is due to visit America next week. The network would love a great scoop while Adams is in the US. It hardly takes a great intellectual endeavour to decode the following: 
'This case or any case involving incidents of terrorism committed by several and various parties ... is a matter of great public interest. These parties may also at this time or in the past have had direct official contact with the government of the United States of America.'
If NBC News wants to investigate Sinn Fein leadership or anyone else it should send out its own journalists to do the hard work instead of jeopardizing journalistic standards and practices or risking the lives of sources they know nothing about.

1 comment: