A leaky government: muckraking, ethics, and the last 12 months

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

With widespread criticism of stories based on leaked documents recently, Nathan Young considers some of the ethical quandaries of using the leaks for Journalism.

The past 12 months have in Ireland seen an unusually high interest in not so much leaked high-level government documents, but of the leaking itself of these documents. Journalists for a time live-tweeted parliamentary party meetings. NPHET recommendations were read by the media-consuming public before cabinet had read them, and allegedly before cabinet had all seen them. Leo Varadkar’s mate Maitiú Ó Tuathail got a copy of the confidential IMO-government contract. And, most recently, The Sunday Independent saw at least extracts from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission’s report, which seemed somewhat distasteful to survivors of the brutal institutions, who believed, rightly, that they should have been among the first to read it.

The cases listed above have little in common, aside from being leaks, but they have been lumped together on several occasions. After The Village published their stories relating to Leo Varadkar, Maitiú Ó Tuathail, and the IMO contract leak, posts tagged with “#LeoTheLeak” spread across the media, alleging Varadkar had leaked NPHET recommendations and other documents to the press. Of course, there is no way to verify these accusations as of yet, however, with the confirmation that Varadkar leaked the contract to Ó Tuathail, we know that the Tánaiste isn’t indisposed to leaking. Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, there is a distinction to be made between a leak of a document to the press and to a personal associate. With a leak, the press should inform the public of what their government has been up to, whereas the associate will operate more smoothly in their quest for political or economic success.

Leaked documents are often the bread-and-butter of the journalistic trade. From the Pentagon Papers to the internal memos of a small town corrupt business, printing information that someone wants to keep secret is a large part of the job. After all, if the official government line on any given issue was inarguably the best, and the official story was the only credible narrative, then the purpose of the press would simply be communication. This isn’t to say that there are no other sources, there are. Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests, tough questions at press conferences, conversations with on and off-record sources are all vital, but leaked documents are still the primary source in most of the greatest journalistic investigations.

In the case of NPHET leaks, society can now look at what was recommended when, look at what government did, and judge for themselves if the right decisions were made. The official method for this would be for journalists to submit FOI requests, wait for several weeks while excuses are concocted, and be told that publishing NPHET recommendations goes against public interest. Not the most productive way to hold a government to account for a shambolic handling of a deadly virus. Knowing the recommendations means that when a spokesperson from a government says they 'had no way of knowing how damaging delaying the second lockdown or allowing retail before Christmas would be', every person knows they are lying.

There is an argument that the publishing of NPHET recommendations somehow undermines public trust in health policy. Before considering the meat of this argument, it's worth pointing out that anyone who has trust in Irish health policy has not been paying attention for a very long time, and that anyone whose job is to promote trust in government policy is, by definition, not a journalist. Qualms aside, the thing most damaging to public trust in health and safety measures (which is not a synonym for government policy) is surely the Tánaiste attacking expert advice in favour of policies that happen to favour short term profit.

A muckraker can be faced with legitimate dilemmas over who their source is. Noble whistleblowers exist, but so do disgruntled civil servants, politicians with grudges, and criminals who have stolen documents. Here, seemingly, it is far more delicate to decide on what to do with a leak. This is resolved in all but one case by declaring that a journalist has one responsibility alone to their source, which is to protect them from identification. They are not responsible for their source’s immortal soul or motives.

The one exception to this is when a journalist is allowing themselves to become a mouthpiece for a particular faction and unwittingly serving an interest other than their readers and the public. If a politician in one of two coalition parties repeatedly leaks evidence of wrongdoing or corruption on behalf of their coalition partner, the press may unwittingly be serving the party of the leak. Given that the public has a right to know about wrongdoing and corruption of a coalition partner, the only real solution is to pour further resources into investigating the party of the leak. In other words, to try and publish more, not less. The source is owed protection from identification, not political fealty.

Now, the elephant in the room: the leaked Mother and Baby Homes Commission report. As I said before, it is right that the victims should be among the first to see it. The operative word here is first. The report itself was scheduled to be published very shortly after the leak for all to read. This is not the same as a secret, or of a document to be archived for several years or decades before the population has access. Of course, the readership of The Sunday Independent, and every other newspaper, have a right to know what is in the report. In this case, however, the right was not being denied by the government. If it were the case that the report was to be shown to the survivors and select other parties only, then the leak would have been justified (given the shameful way many topics were approached in the report, not to mention the factual inaccuracies, I dare say that a survivor or two themselves may have leaked it). The leak caused a lot of unnecessary distress among survivors of the Mother and Baby homes, and this distress could have been avoided.

That being said, it is vital that the press don’t become too cautious around what leaks to publish. Save for private information about private lives, and the identity of their sources, it is not the responsibility of journalists to keep secrets secret. There are armies of civil servants for that. Ireland is lucky to not have the same culture around national security as either Britain or the United States, as those arguments against publishing leaks are more tedious and dishonest still than our discourse around public trust. When the government do anything, they do it in your name and with your money. It’s incumbent on society to be curious about what they are doing.