Could any other media organisation do it? The ABC has embarked on changes to journalistic practice that are likely to hit reporters where they are most sensitive – in the murky and sometimes conveniently blurry area of relationships with sources.

A discussion paper is circulating in which Auntie’s Director of Editorial Policies, Paul Chadwick, recommends that the ABC’s editorial policies should define the terms “off the record”, “on background” and “on the record”. He also recommends that reporters wanting to use the contents of unattributable conversations in their stories should refer the decision upwards to more senior editorial colleagues.

Chadwick writes:

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The implications – ethical and legal – of the ABC making a binding promise to keep a source confidential, or of breaking such a promise, are such that, in my view, no such promise should be made or broken without the relevant staff first referring upward the decision to a level of executive responsibility commensurate with the seriousness of the decision.

This is bound to be controversial. One can already hear the squeals about bureaucracy and “only at the ABC”. But there are serious issues here that the profession can ill afford to ignore.

The discussion paper has been written in the wake of last August’s “Dinnergate” affair, in which ABC reporter Michael Brissenden and others, having first agreed to keep details of a 2005 dinner conversation with Peter Costello private, then breached that agreement. Chadwick’s paper was commissioned in the wake of that controversy by ABC Managing Director Mark Scott.

The report can be read in full here.

In Australia, where the issue of a journalist’s commitment to sources is under-examined and usually discussed in a context of high moral dudgeon from the industry, Chadwick’s paper is a groundbreaking piece of work. But as he makes clear with his list of references, including the work done by the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair, his suggestions are not that innovative in the international context.

Chadwick points out that every time a journalist chooses to keep the identity of a source confidential, they compromise their truth-telling commitment by omitting relevant information. Sometimes they are also claiming to be above the law. It is a huge decision.

Chadwick sums up the issues as:

  • Is a promise to keep confidential the identity of a source absolute?
  • Or are there circumstances in which truth-telling overrides promise-keeping?
  • How can this clash of basic values be minimised in practice?
  • When a clash is unavoidable, how ought journalists make and explain their decisions?

The issue of whether a journalist’s commitment to a source should be absolute has only been considered once before in Australia – by the Brennan committee that reviewed the journalists’ union code of ethics in 1995. Chadwick was a leading member of that committee, but its recommendation that the commitment to a source should be qualified, and journalists released from their obligations when there was a lack of good faith, was rejected.

Yet “lack of good faith” was exactly the defence used by Brissenden and others for revealing the conversation they had had when Costello lied about it. Chadwick’s paper lists many other occasions on which journalists have chosen to reveal sources because of wider public interest considerations.

Chadwick was not required to pronounce on the rights and wrongs of the Dinnergate affair, and does not do so, but he makes it clear that current Editorial Polices, and Australian journalistic ethical codes more generally, are inadequate in the area.

There is much more here as well, Chadwick also recommends changes to editorial policies to give guidance on handling cases where journalists become part of the story – as Brissenden did in the Dinnergate affair.

There is meat here to sustain a few semesters of courses in journalistic ethics. More immediately, there is a real attempt to engage the industry in ethical debate.

I suspect it will start, though, with protests and squealing about how “upward referral” of such matters will be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Crikey is happy to host some of this debate.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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