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Don't protect your source if your source is flagrantly abusing you and the law

One of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash's staffers resigned earlier this week, after it was revealed by Buzzfeed's Alice Workman that he'd told several media outlets about an imminent police raid on the Australian Workers Union. Cash is also in trouble because she told the Senate repeatedly that nobody in her office had passed this information to any media. Sounds like good reporting, right? Not so fast!

There is a fight happening in the Canberra press gallery, about whether journalists at these (unnamed) other outlets should have told Buzzfeed that their source was in the ministers' office, and whether Workman should have published the story revealing that fact. Sharri Markson of the Daily Telegraph, Robert Ovadia at Channel 7, and Laura Tingle of the (paywalled) Australian Financial Review all think that exposing this source was violating a basic rule of journalistic ethics.

This is a neat illustration of how professional codes of ethics can become a damaging substitute for actually thinking about the ethical character of the situation you're in. 'Journalistic ethics' was not handed down from on high and it's not a fact of nature. It's a set of rules constructed to help ensure journalism is serving the public good. And thinking through the prism of these rules is leading a lot of people to talk nonsense. Even the defenders of Workman's story are settling on a silly position: that it was fine for her to write the story, but it wouldn't have been acceptable for one of the journalists who received the leak from Cash's office to write it, and that even for Workman the story was justified because it showed that Cash had misled the Senate.

This does not make a lot of sense. The appropriate response for people who received a tip about the raids from Cash's staffer would have been to go and report on those raids, but then to immediately start follow-up reporting on their tip. The minister's office shouldn't have known about the raids: how did they get that information? Did it suggest that the investigation was being politically directed? These are potentially explosive public-interest questions that should have occurred to any journalist even before Cash said a word to the Senate. It's not that the source should immediately have been outed. But when somebody gives you a tip that's obviously in their political self-interest, and it comes from information that they could only have if there was some abuse of independent regulators going on, you don't just take the tip and leave it at that.

'Protect your sources' is a good rule of thumb, because if people routinely outed their sources then there would not be very many sources, and reporters would lack a lot of important contextual information that makes their work more informative. But the rule matters for just that reason: revealing sources might affect people's future behaviour. So perhaps, instead of just reciting slight variations on a slogan from a Journalism Ethics 101 class, we could think through how outing this particular source might affect the behaviour of potential future leakers:
  • It might mean that public servants in independent regulators and/or the police are reluctant to leak about their investigations, when the content of that leak will become public knowledge an hour later anyway and so is adding nothing except dramatic video.
  • It might mean that ministerial offices are reluctant to use information it's not legal for them to have to (slightly) increase - again, the value-add here is just some TV pictures - the effectiveness of their smear campaign.
  • Since a big part of the fallout has been about Cash's false statements to the Senate, it might encourage ministers not to make statements they aren't sure are accurate during sworn testimony, or encourage staffers not to lie to their boss when she's about to testify.
Which, honestly, all sounds fine to me!

The argument against, in Robert Ovadia's words, is that:
Whistleblowers and “leakers” for the common good can only feel safe if journalists have enough character to also preserve the confidentiality of leakers who only do so in their own political self-interest. Whistleblowers deserve to know journalists will not make a judgement call on whether they deserve confidentiality or not.
That's one model for ensuring that leakers continue to come forward. (Let's not dignify the 'whistleblowers' tag, which is so obviously inapplicable here that I doubt any of the people involved would try to claim it.) But it's a model that proffers up journalism as a tool for politicians to spread their chosen narrative with no chance of being called out for misconduct. This was an abuse of the state machinery to smear a political opponent. Even Sharri Markson agrees that this was part of a chain of gross misconduct - she just seems to think it's misconduct that shouldn't have been uncovered.

And it's so unnecessary, because an approach to leakers which meant that people ask themselves, "would this journalist reasonably think that this leak has no public interest benefit and is purely self-interested, and possibly illegal?", I'm willing to hazard, would not actually stop very many whistleblowers. That's the approach Workman and her sources at other outlets followed this week. If more journalists did, it might just make political players think twice about the more grubby and indefensible aspects of their gamesmanship.