BBC director of news Richard Sambrook has moved to allay fears that journalists would be compelled to give up their sources to editors, as a part of recommendations from the Neil editorial review published on Wednesday.
A proposal in the review led by former BBC news and director Ron Neil, established to glean lessons from the Hutton inquiry, has left the NUJ with cause for concern.
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The report states: “As a general principle, whenever a story involves an anonymous source, the relevant editor has the right to be told the name of that source. Only in this way can editors and reporters jointly assess the appropriateness of such a source.”
But NUJ broadcast organiser Paul McLaughlin said the wording left too much room for ambiguity, particularly as to whether or not a story deemed important by the journalist would run, purely because they refused to name a source.
“There are a number of concerns we would want to be clear on. There is a delicate distinction between the management’s right not to publish a particular story and the need to ensure that important information reaches the public domain,” he said.
However, Sambrook told Press Gazette that if the BBC is to broadcast a story based on an anonymous source that makes a serious allegation, the editor is entitled to know who the source is.
“Clearly, a reporter may decide they are not prepared to reveal that source, in which case the editor has the right not to broadcast it,” he said.
“What we say there is carefully caveated: it says the editor can waive that right to know the source; some of that decision on whether to waive it or not will depend on the seniority and track record of the correspondent.”
Sambrook insisted there would be no “punitive action” if a reporter refused to reveal their source.
“We respect that journalists have a right as individuals to protect particular sources, but BBC editors have a right to decide whether or not to broadcast the story, based on how much they know about it and the confidence they have in the journalist and in the integrity of the story.”
Sambrook continued: “This isn’t a case of ‘cough up your source or you’re in trouble’, it’s more a case of ‘I respect the fact you can’t tell me, but actually on balance then, we’re not going to go with the story.'” However, McLaughlin, who is in negotiations with the BBC over the implementation of the report, insisted: “The current wording gives us concern. We must be absolutely clear that people who brief BBC journalists off the record will not find their names passed up through a managerial hierarchy unless they themselves agree to it.
“That is the practice at present and must be maintained.”
The right to refuse to name your source is a principle not only for news organisations but for individuals – indeed it exists in European and British law because of a case brought by an NUJ member – Bill Goodwin – backed by the union. The union’s code of conduct establishes the protection of sources as fundamental.”
The NUJ also said that the new complaints procedure in which programme editors would play a role, did not take account of the editorial team’s need to question rulings.
“We submitted that there needs to be a way for journalists’ rights to be respected, where the journalist is not in agreement with the complaint,” McLaughlin said.
The NUJ was pleased with the proposal to establish a journalism college, which would ensure the continued training of working BBC journalists.
Sambrook said the college could be in partnership with other broadcasters and institutions.
The report has also recommended that lawyers reside within the newsroom, alongside journalists, for the first time.
By Wale Azeez