Tribunals, journalists and sources


Sir, – You correctly indicate (News, June 2nd) that I said at the disclosures tribunal last Friday that there are circumstances in which a certain kind of ostensible journalistic “source” may not in justice to third parties be entitled to absolute concealment of their identity. I was examined and cross-examined for nearly three hours, and the full transcript referring to this complex issue is available on the tribunal website.

A malicious source that reveals the truth may be properly protected. But claims of absolute privilege, no matter how a source harms or deliberately misleads journalists and others, risk bringing the doctrine of sources into disrepute. I subscribe to the NUJ Code of Conduct, and also cited the nuanced position of the long-standing US Society of Professional Journalists as well as helpful Canadian precedents.

There has been some very good journalism about the McCabe scandal.

I cannot see why any journalist who was told half-truths or discredited allegations about Sgt Maurice McCabe would not be prepared to tell the disclosures tribunal at least in general terms if some senior gardaí­ were circulating that information (without necessarily revealing their identity unless a garda freely waives privilege).

I also raised with the tribunal an exclusive RTÉ news item on the Garda Inspectorate report broadcast the night before that report went to Cabinet in March 2014. The Garda Inspectorate insisted at that time that its final report had only been sent to the Minister for Justice and a couple of senior personnel in the Department of Justice and Garda, and the Garda categorically denied that it was the source of the leak.

RTÉ may be professionally justified in not disclosing its source in this instance, but not in having claimed that it “saw the report” unless it did so in the sense of having being able to read the whole document and so report it fairly rather than rely on spin by a “source”. I hope that the tribunal report will comment on the significance and slant of this particular leak and news item.

Unfortunately, the terms of reference of the tribunal refer specifically to another relevant RTÉ item but do not include specific reference to that one on the Garda Inspectorate report, something that I pointed out to the then-minister for justice early last year when I urged her to include it in in the tribunal’s terms (albeit potentially embarrassing for her department).

I also recommended including specific reference to disciplinary proceedings taken solely against Sgt McCabe relating to the loss of an exhibit in a crime years earlier in which he had not even been part of the investigating team and of which he was only belatedly cleared. Neither term was added, but the tribunal has general powers to consider matters relevant to its overall task. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor

of Communications,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.