Dear Dr Deadline,
I need help with this quickly. I’m a reporter on a national tabloid newspaper. For some time I’ve been working on a story involving the former fiance of an extremely well-known celebrity with which she has, until now, co-operated fully. For obvious reasons I can’t go into details, but I’ve spent a lot of time with her and gained her trust. Her story – and believe me, it’s a good one – is all in my notebook and on tape and is basically ready to go. The problem is this: she has suddenly got cold feet and decided that she doesn’t want to go ahead. She feels the exposure would put a great strain on both her and her child that she’s not sure they could handle – and the thing is, I agree with her. My bosses are, let’s say, somewhat unsympathetic to her misgivings and are telling me that as a journalist it’s my responsibility to make sure the story is told. The threat seems to be that if I don’t, I can forget about going any further with the paper. I feel in need of your soothing brand of wisdom.
The timing of your plea is remarkable. I write this on the day that Dr David Kelly, the MoD official who may have been the BBC’s source for its controversial story on a Government dossier about Iraq, has apparently killed himself. The speculation is that his appearance before a select committee, and the ensuing media frenzy, became too much for this shy man, with tragic consequences. It’s a horribly stark example, but it does demonstrate that the phrase “protecting your sources” has a much broader meaning than the one used casually and often by many journalists to keep the contents of their contacts book to themselves.
You could, of course, write and publish the story without legal qualms. But assuming you still have the tapes and notes, your bosses cannot – and should not – force you to publish. Ask careful questions of both sides: will they provide her with “after-story” support should she need it? Does she feel that she just needs more time before going public? Give her every chance to change her mind. If she doesn’t, and if you still feel that she would suffer over the story, then I believe your first duty is to her wellbeing.
Your bosses may even respect you for your decision. Stranger things have happened.
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