Journalist faces jail over refusal to name sources

 

Mahon tribunal: A Sunday newspaper journalist is facing the possibility of imprisonment after he refused to tell the tribunal who gave him confidential documents from the inquiry.

Mr Barry O'Kelly of the Sunday Business Post yesterday repeated an earlier refusal to name his sources for two tribunal-related articles published last October.

Mr O'Kelly told the tribunal he was fully aware of the consequences of failing to disclose them.

Judge Alan Mahon had earlier pointed out there was no such thing as "sacrosanct journalistic privilege" before the Irish courts. He said the failure by a journalist to reveal a source was a matter "of the utmost seriousness" which could result in serious sanctions, including imprisonment.

The chairman acknowledged that a journalist's entitlement to refuse to divulge a source had "significantly widened" since the European Convention on Human Rights came into effect in this State earlier this year. However, this right fell very much short of establishing anything close to absolute journalistic privilege.

Asked if he was willing to disclose the source of his information, Mr O'Kelly told the tribunal: "I don't want to sound patronising, but with the greatest respect I am not, unfortunately." Asked if he understood the consequences of not obeying a direction to disclose them, he said: "I'm fully aware of the consequences".

Thomas Crosbie Holdings, the publishers of the Post, refused to give an undertaking that it would not in future leak any confidential information from the tribunal.

Mr Anthony Dinan, managing director of TCH, said he was not prepared to give such an undertaking. Asked if he was saying the Post's position was that it would not obey a direction from the tribunal on the matter, Mr Dinan said: "That's correct, chairman".

Judge Mahon must now decide whether to refer the non-co-operation of Mr O'Kelly and his newspaper to the High Court, which could make an order directing either or both parties to comply. If they failed to do so, they could be found in contempt of the court.

Both parties could also face a criminal prosecution by the DPP if the tribunal found they had hindered and obstructed its work.

Earlier this month Mr O'Kelly said he had destroyed the documents on which he had based the stories so as to protect his sources.

The first article concerned a property deal at Coolamber, Lucan, which is the focus of current tribunal hearings.

In the second, based on a confidential witness statement, the journalist named three politicians alleged to have received donations of £5,500. The allegation had been aired at the tribunal a few days previously, but the identities of the politicians had not been divulged.

One of those named in the article was Mr Lawlor, who was present at yesterday's hearing.

Judge Mahon said the tribunal was satisfied its demand for Mr O'Kelly to reveal his sources was a reasonable measure designed to identify the source and to prevent recurrences.

Exceptional circumstances prevailed in this case because vital public and private interests were at stake. He conceded that the tribunal had encountered significant problems throughout its existence with leaks to the media. It had questioned journalists, written to newspapers and called in gardaí, but with no success.

Publication of leaks dissuaded potential witnesses from coming forward and co-operating with the inquiry.

  • The National Union of Journalists has expressed serious concern at the ruling of Justice Mahon regarding journalist, Barry O'Kelly. The Irish NUJ secretary, Mr Séamus Dooley, said the ruling had profound implications for journalism. He welcomed the strong stand taken by Mr O'Kelly and by the Sunday Business Post which has refused to give an undertaking not to publish leaks from the tribunal.