Journalists Say BBC Fallout Must Not Lead to Attack on Journalists’ Right to Secrecy

The International Federation of Journalists today warned that a recommendation over editorial reforms within the BBC could undermine the right of journalists to protect the anonymity of their sources of information.

“Journalists at the BBC and elsewhere must maintain the right to protect sources of information and they must not be obliged to betray them to anyone,” said Arne König, Chair of the European Federation of Journalists, the regional group of the IFJ.

The recommendation, that journalists should inform their editors of sources, comes in a report into BBC journalism, which was commissioned earlier this year after David Kelly, a source for a controversial broadcast on the government’s handling of information regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, killed himself after his identity was revealed.

The death exposed a fierce battle between the government and the BBC over the story and led to a public inquiry and the eventual resignation of the Director General of the BBC and the Chairman of the Board of Governors. This in turn led to the review of newsroom practice, most of which is positive says the National Union of Journalists, the IFJ and EFJ affiliate in the United Kingdom.

“This is an extensive document, which will be largely welcomed by journalists at the BBC and everyone striving for higher standards in broadcasting,” said König. “But the suggestion over revealing sources of information is a mistake. People who talk to reporters expect them to keep their word about anonymity, they do not expect their name to be passed on – even to the Editor or the senior management.”

Journalists at the BBC have already refused to accept this proposal, and the IFJ is supporting them. “There are many lessons to be learned about the BBC’s handling of this story, “ said Konig, “but it would be disastrous if one of the conclusions leads to a weakening of the right of journalists to protect their sources.”

The IFJ and EFJ say that the current practice of leaving the protection of sources in the hands of reporters is essential. “Often editors, quite sensibly given the state of British law, do not want to know sources of information. They trust their reporters to be professional and this is how it should be,” said König.

“The right to protect confidential sources is a fundamental principle of press freedom accepted in European law and ignited by the landmark case of a British journalist and the NUJ. We need to strengthen the right of confidentiality, not start setting precedents that could undermine it,” he said.

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries