Abandoning the protection of sources would destroy the search for truth, one of the fundamental principles underpinning journalism, a leading national media figure has warned.
Speaking at his inaugural lecture as Adjunct Professor of Journalism at University of Limerick, Gerard Colleran said truth is the only motivation of journalists, regardless of its source.
The former editor and managing director of The Irish Daily Star said journalists have to live within a legal environment where the protection of sources may sometimes prove problematic.
“If journalists talked only to sources with pristine motivations, then they’d be forced to live a very boring and lonely life. Most people giving information to journalists have their own reasons, their own angle, their own spleen perhaps, to taste revenge, to embarrass a company, a boss, a partner – whatever.
“Sometimes journalists will find themselves in conflict with the law. In such circumstances, journalists have a bounden duty to do the right thing by their own lights,” he said.
During his lecture ‘Journalism: Protection of Sources and the law’ Mr Colleran said sometimes, the respective goals and principles of law and journalism will diverge.
“This is not an apology for journalists setting themselves up in opposition to the courts. It’s simply a recognition that sometimes reconciliation and alignment, between the law on the one hand and journalism on the other, is not possible,” he stated.
Referring to the Charleton Tribunal investigation into allegations of a smear campaign against Garda whistle-blower Sergeant Maurice McCabe, Mr Colleran said it was almost inevitable that Judge Charleton will be forced to ask some very awkward questions to a number of journalists.
“If top Gardai were trying to smear Sergeant McCabe by briefing journalists against him, does that unworthy motivation remove the journalist’s privilege?”, he asked.
“The law has its own approach and journalists must have theirs. Journalists play a very important role, not separate to, but part of the wider community.
“Journalists do not cling to the principle of protecting their sources out of self-interest alone – although there is a complete awareness that conceding the principle would wreck all trust in journalism, undermine its legitimacy and render it entirely useless,” he continued.
According to Mr Colleran motivation is not the business of journalists, “truth is”.
“It’s to truth that journalists owe their first allegiance. Is the story true, just and fair? Is it important enough to be published? Well, if it passes that test, get on with it. Publish. Journalists the world over know instinctively that the protection of one’s sources is a fundamental principle that if abandoned will destroy journalism,” he said.
“As the old man in my boyhood Westerns would say – there’s a storm a comin’. Journalists need to check their principles, batten down the hatches, hunker down and stay strong,” he added.
Mr Colleran is a graduate of University of Limerick where he received an MBA in 1993 and Harvard Business School in Boston. The well-known journalist and television presenter is currently in his second year of law studies at Kings Inns.
Mr Colleran co-authored a book on the Kerry babies case and previously worked as editor of The Kerryman newspaper. A TV3 presenter and newspaper columnist, Mr Colleran played a central role in the political negotiations on the new Defamation Act.
Speaking at Mr Colleran’s inaugural lecture, Dr Fergal Quinn head of journalism in UL said is vital that young journalists understand the implications of how journalistic privilege is understood.
“Journalistic privilege is one of the cornerstones of the freedom of the press in this country, and it is crucial for all journalists to fully understand the subtle distinctions and limitations between how this right is understood legally and ethically,” he said.
“There is a great deal at stake in this debate, as has been highlighted yet again recently with the Maurice McCabe case. Ger’s take on this question, with the benefit of his vast experience from the editorial frontline, will be very illuminating for our students,” Dr Quinn continued.
Journalism lecturer Kathryn Hayes paid tribute to the hugely beneficial contribution of UL’s Adjunct Professors of journalism.
“The input of our Adjunct Professors enables students to hear from a diverse range of voices in the media industry on topics of utmost importance to journalism.”
“We are grateful for the generous input of our adjunct professors in the years since journalism was established here in University of Limerick. Ger Colleran is continuing that tradition,” Ms Hayes stated.
As part of his role as Adjunct Professor Mr Colleran will give master classes to UL’s Journalism and New Media students. RTÉ presenter Bryan Dobson is a current Adjunct Professor of Broadcast Journalism at UL. Previous Adjunct Professors of Journalism include former Irish Times Editor Geraldine Kennedy and Sunday Times journalist Justine McCarthy.