PCC says public interest changes won't undermine source confidentiality

The Press Complaints Commission has assured journalists that new restrictions on researching stories “in the public interest” will not compromise their confidential sources.

Yesterday, the Editors’ Code Committee announced that from January 1, 2012, it will tighten up the way the code’s public interest defence is used.

At the moment, editors who rely on the public interest defence to justify breaches of the code must prove they had “good reason to believe the public interest would be served”.

But in future, they will also have to show … “how, and with whom, that was established at the time”.

Those words “with whom” concern me.

Supposing a journalist has used a confidential source to establish that there is public interest in researching a story.

The article is published, provokes a storm, and someone complains to the PCC. The PCC then asks the editor “how, and with whom”, did (s)he establish public interest?

Would the editor be asked to name the source? And what would happen if (s)he refused?

I put this to the PCC and invited their explanation. Their spokesman assured me: “This change is not a requirement for editors to identify the names of confidential sources.”

He added: “Editors need to be able to testify to (through a clear audit trail) the editorial processes that took place in the preparation of the story.”

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by this reassurance.

Will the commission be entirely satisfied if an editor says: “We checked this story, but under Clause 14 of your code, we’re not prepared to tell you who with.

“We also cannot give you full details of how we checked the information, as this could reveal clues about our source’s ID.”

Each case will differ. But I can foresee a time when the public interest, and clause 14, will conflict.

And then what?

Remember, too, the journalist has the right to refuse to name a source under the Contempt of Court Act.

Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the other change announced by the PCC – the requirement on editors to agree the position of PCC adjudications with the commission’s director.

Cleland Thom is consultant and trainer in media law.
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