Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) is troubled by a British Columbia judge’s ruling ordering a reporter with the Vancouver newspaper The Province to identify a confidential source.
The ruling, issued Dec. 31 by Judge Paul Williamson of the B.C. Supreme Court, orders Elaine O’Connor to name the source of information used in her October 2007 story about alleged election campaign overspending by former Liberal MP Blair Wilson. The front-page story also reported on allegations made by Wilson’s father-in-law of unpaid debts.
Some of the overspending allegations were made in a document given to O’Connor by the unnamed source after she promised not to reveal the source’s name. The story also included information provided by several individuals who were named.
Wilson and his wife Kelly Wilson, who is Bill Lougheed’s stepdaughter, have been embroiled in bitter court battles with Lougheed over a dispute concerning Lougheed’s late wife’s estate. Blair Wilson has also claimed he was libelled by O’Connor and The Province along with Lougheed and others.
Judge Williamson ordered O’Connor to disclose not only the name of her source but also the nature of her communication with the source. He said the information is relevant because Wilson claims the libel defendants acted with malice. The Province plans to contest the judge’s order.
“By focusing narrowly on the possible motive of the confidential informant to determine whether the court should foster the reporter-informant relationship, the Court has missed the point,” says CJFE Board member and lawyer Peter Jacobsen. “The issue is whether ordering the violation of the reporter’s promise of confidentiality at such an early point in the litigation, or at all, is in the public interest in the larger sense. The court did not appear to take into account the public interest in upholding the protection of sources for the benefit of news gathering generally. For the most part the courts have recognized the value of the reporter-informant relationship. The mere allegation of malice of the source surely cannot be enough to vitiate the privilege. If this were the case the privilege would become so vulnerable as to be practically useless.”
CJFE notes that recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings have looked favourably on the principle of reporter-source confidentiality. In a case involving reporter Andrew McIntosh, the top court held that judges should compel journalists to reveal sources “only as a last resort” when crucial information is otherwise unobtainable.
Finding out whether a source acted with malice doesn’t meet that test, said Paul Knox, a CJFE member and a journalism professor at Ryerson University.
“The important thing is not the source’s motive but whether the information checks out,” Knox said. “Forcing reporters to break their word will send Canadian journalism into the deep-freeze, and that’s hardly in the public interest.”
For more information, visit CJFE’s website
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