Leaking in the public interest

May 14, 2009

nicholas-jonesNicholas Jones is the author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (Politico’s, 2006). He is a member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Whatever reservations there might be over the way the leaked information was obtained, the publication of hitherto secret details about the endemic abuse of MPs’ expenses was without doubt in the public interest.

I have voiced my concerns in the past about cheque-book journalism and the practice of some newspapers in using dubious methods to influence the news agenda, but the Daily Telegraph deserves to be congratulated for seizing the moment and exposing the greed and double-standards of our elected representatives.

What strengthens the public interest justification for buying a purloined copy of the details being processed by the House of Commons fees office was the fact that MPs had collectively done all they could to try to thwart the release of the data.

Their attempt to frustrate the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act was a stain on Britain’s great democratic traditions and the sight now of MPs across the political spectrum tumbling over each other to pay back their ill gotten gains is proof if any were needed of the importance of investigative journalism.

As Police investigations are now in hand to identify the individual who was hawking the information around the offices of the national press, journalists face a dilemma. Should we stand by our colleagues at the Daily Telegraph who are adamant in their refusal to even discuss the source of the information? Or should we join the hue and cry which Speaker Michael Martin seems to favour in order to unmask the leaker who had the audacity to hold MPs to account?

My sense is that we should show some collective solidarity with the journalists of the Daily Telegraph. While there does seem to be every indication that money changed hands and that an individual or individuals have profited from these unprecedented disclosures, I think we should be cautious.

The last unseemly witch hunt by journalists against one of their own – the despicable Downing Street-backed operation to identify Andrew Gilligan’s source – ended with the tragic death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, a salutary reminder perhaps of the need occasionally for journalists to let events take their course rather than turn in on themselves.

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