News organizations rarely reveal the names of confidential sources, but when it happens it's usually because the identity of the source is bigger than the story itself. On the heels of The Barrie Advance outing the PMO for sending out information on Justin Trudeau to news organizations, Edward Tubb looks at other situations where journalists or news organizations revealed their sources — and the consequences that followed.

By Edward Tubb

The Barrie Advance did something remarkably rare last week. And, it's earned the paper widespread praise.

Last Monday, the paper ran the name of a communications officer at the Prime Minister's Office in a front page story. That officer — Erica Meekes — offered the newspaper documents detailing one of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's speaking engagements. But, there was a catch. Meekes wanted editor-in-chief Lori Martin to report that the information came from "a source". Instead, Martin chose to run the bigger story — that the PMO was attempting to smear a rival under the cover of anonymity — and named Meekes.

For that, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne called the Advance (circ. 52,000), "Newspaper of the year," in a tweet.


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That's heady praise. But, it also speaks to a pattern in journalism: journalists almost never voluntarily reveal their confidential sources — even in situations when it may seem like that they should. Indeed, they often go to extreme lengths to protect sources.

Outing a source happens so infrequently that almost every example is a noteworthy ethical case study. Here are a few of the times of when journalists have broken an agreement with a source:

In 1997, Allan Thompson outed an anonymous source he had used in a story three years earlier when he was covering the Somalia Affair for the Toronto Star.

That source connected him to confidential documents that smeared a whistleblower Maj. Barry Armstrong, the military doctor whose analysis suggested a Somali citizen was “shot in the back, as in an execution, at close range,” by Canadians, the CBC’s The National reported. His account forced a public inquiry. And, eventually those hearings revealed that leak to Thompson was part of an orchestrated campaign to discredit Armstrong.

When Thompson realized he'd been misled, he outed his source — John Williston, a press secretary to the Minister of Defense — in a story that made the front page.

Thompson, now a journalism professor at Carleton University, was one of several to come out in support of the Advance’s decision to out Meekes.

In 1999, the British National Union of Journalists ostracized an English freelancer for revealing a murder confession he had heard in confidence. While in a Northern Ireland jail, prisoner Clifford George McKeown told Nick Martin-Clark he’d committed a murder. Martin-Clark broke the confidence and sold the story to the Sunday Times.

It was a difficult decision, he wrote. “Despite the difficulty of going against a source this was a promise I eventually felt, after some agonising, that I could not keep," he wrote in the British Journalism Review.

"It would have been easier to keep [McKeown’s] secret because my life has been disrupted," he wrote.

But, Martin-Clarks’ fellow journalists disagreed with his decision and heaped on the criticism. And, the NUJ stripped Martin-Clark's membership in 2003. "The NUJ was horrified that [he] simply ignored such a basic principle of journalistic ethics," the official in charge of the union’s ethics council told the Belfast Journal. "When a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality, the journalist must adhere to that promise," he said.

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In Canada, the Fifth Estate used tape of an off-the-record quote from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s PR-man Luc Lavoie in a 1999 documentary on the Airbus cash-for-contracts scandal. The episode, one of many the CBC ran on the affair, concerned a bank account held by German middle-man Karlheinz Schreiber that seemed to be linked to Mulroney through a code name. 

Lavoie and producer Harvey Cashore had taped a series of conversations prior to the air date. During one phone call, Lavoie asked to go off-the-record and then said “Karlheinz Schreiber is the biggest fucking liar the world has ever seen. That’s what we believe.” But, Lavoie and Cashore had an agreement not to share details of the conversation and besides — it was off the record.

However, Lavoie later appeared to break their agreement when a National Post editorial on the fifth estate’s upcoming broadcast revealed details only Lavoie could have provided. Cashore and other senior CBC producers sought legal and ethical counsel and decided the agreement was voided. The explosive quote was no longer off the record.

In his 2010 book on covering the Airbus scandal, The Truth Shows Up, Cashore recalls his reaction to watching the quote on air:

Had we done the right thing? I prided myself on sticking to my word, even in the toughest situations. Now I had broadcast and off-the-record quote, a breach of promise justified solely because the other party had broken their promise first. Wasn’t that like a child in a schoolyard fight insisting “he hit me first?" Yet I knew that if we had not broadcast that clip the bully would have won.

In a telephone interview this week, Cashore says it's important for journalists to have a discussion on how to report leaks like the one the Advance received. "At what point does a strategic leak become the bigger story?" he asks. "It's never a black and white." 

Nevertheless, it's hard to overstate how rare decisions like these are. Indeed, there are far more examples of the opposite — journalists staying silent to protect sources.

  • In 2004, the RCMP raided the house of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill searching for the name of the source that gave her confidential information on torture victim Maher Arar. Later a public inquiry revealed that the documents — which included statements Arar made to Syrian authorities under torture – were probably leaked as part of a campaign to discredit the Canadian. O’Neill did not reveal her source.
  • In 2005, ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify the source of a leak that outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. For her silence, she was applauded. Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review wrote that Miller was an “American hero” for staying silent, despite the fact her reporting leading up to the Iraq War was famously inaccurate.
  • In 2007, The Hamilton Spectator's Ken Peters refused to reveal a source in a civil trial and was found in contempt of court. Peters and the Spectator fought the charges, and eventually won. The case is now a landmark in press freedom law — establishing the conditions when journalists can refuse to reveal their sources in court. Peters stayed silent even after the source himself — a city alderman — spoke out.

Of course, a key difference between all of these cases and last weeks' incident is that the Advance says it did not promise to protect Meekes' identity. "I didn’t agree to the terms of the request because I didn’t know what the content was and I had no relationship with [Meekes]," wrote Martin in an editorial explaining her decision. "I told [Meekes] to send the information to me, saying I would have a look at it. That was the only promise I made," she argued.

Indeed, the Barrie Examiner and the Toronto Star also received the same leak from the PMO. And, though their stories were hardly complimentary of the PMO, neither of the larger papers named Meekes.

Toronto Star senior writer Susan Delacourt explained her reason for not naming Meekes as saying she felt she did make a promise. "We protect our sources all the time," she said on CBC Radio's The Current. "Whether it was right or not, we told the PMO we would look at the documents, on those conditions," she said.

Meekes could not be reached for comment. In an interview with the CBC's As it Happens, Martin said that Meekes contacted the Advance's general manger to complain that the paper had broken a verbal agreement.

 

Edward Tubb is a freelancer and soon-to-be graduate of the Master's of Journalism program at Ryerson University. He's currently writing about source protection and tobacco farming.