Behind the lines: Revealing sources

While the US media is still pulling itself apart over the latest revelations in the saga of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her appearance i

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October 21, 2005 10:54

 
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While the US media is still pulling itself apart over the latest revelations in the saga of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her appearance in front of a grand jury, where she finally - after 85 days in prison - revealed the identity of at least one of the sources who had revealed to her the name of a CIA agent, an interesting precedent was also made last week here in Israel in the matter of confidential sources. Tel-Aviv District Court Judge Amiram Binyamini ruled that the confidentiality of a source belongs to the reporter and not to the source. In other words, if for certain reasons the interests of the reporter or the news organization clash with those of the source, the reporter can decide to reveal the source against his or her will. The ruling came in a libel case between a former employee of Discount Bank and the financial daily Globes which had written that the bank employee was fired for financial misconduct. The employee sued Globes editor Hagai Golan and reporter Judy Meltz for libel. In its defense Globes countered that the information had been received from a senior source in Discount's management and as a result the bank was also sued for libel. When the reporter was asked by the claimant's lawyer the identity of her source, the bank's representative demanded that she refrain from answering. Judge Binyamini decided that the reporter was permitted to reveal the source's identity if doing so was required as part of the defense, especially where there was a disagreement between the reporter and the source over what actually transpired between them. The ruling is problematic, not only because it flies in the face of previous legal precedents in Israeli courts establishing the source's right to anonymity, but also because it creates a dangerous balance of power between reporters and sources. The latter will be even more reluctant in the future to pass on sensitive information if they know a reporter might name them to save himself in court. That situation might save the the media some money in legal costs and libel damages in the short term but in the long run, it will make things much more difficult for reporters trying to wrangle information out of fearful officials. Even if the judge allowed Globes to reveal the source's name in its defense, perhaps it would be wiser for them to look at the broader picture and protect their journalistic interests and not only their legal and financial ones. To hark back for a moment to the Miller case in the US. It would have been tempting to say that in the American media no one would have dreamt of revealing a source, that in the mecca of journalistic ethics sources are sacrosanct, like Watergate's "deep throat" whose identity was guarded for over three decades. But if the events of the last few months are anything to go by, then in the US other concerns also override the sanctity of source protection. EVERY YEAR, Israeli newspapers, especially Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv on the eve of Yom Kippur, used to be full of amazing new stories of bravery from the Yom Kippur War. But lately it seems that the well has run dry. A couple of years ago, during the 30th anniversary of the war, there was a final orgy of remembrance and since then the papers have begun to look for new mate rial. The problem is that in a month of so many holidays and festivals, it's not that easy to come up with special gimmicks that will also sell newspapers and not seem too frivolous for Yom Kippur reading. Once again the two tabloids came up with the same solution, sending intrepid reporters behind enemy lines. Ma'ariv's Cherie Rover flew to Damascus and Yediot's Orly Azulai was embedded with American troops in Afghanistan. It's always good news when Israeli news organizations start looking abroad for a change. The problem is with the usually parochial style of reporting and editing and that the newspapers seemed satisfied with the mere fact that their reporters actually got there. This is ridiculous. Rover is only the latest in a long line of Israeli reporters who have used their foreign passports to visit Damascus. Since she didn't bring back anything newsworthy, her feature should have been in the travel section, not the political supplement. Meanwhile, Azulai did not hike through the Khyber Pass to reach Afghanistan, like thousands of reporters over the last four years. Perhaps, if she could have overcome the excitement of actually being there, she might have been able to file a decent news story. But then again, probably not, if her breathless visit to a Christmas reception at the White House a couple of years ago is anything to go by.

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