Respecting the role of journalists is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy
Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30
'Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations."
George Orwell's observations on press freedom and its duty to hold those in power to account comes sharply into focus in the current controversy over GSOC - the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission - and its surveillance of journalists.
At least two journalists' phone records have been accessed following an investigation into alleged garda leaks about the death of model Katy French.
Another seven garda leaks to the media are being investigated, including the reporting of TD Clare Daly's arrest for drink-driving (of which she was cleared) and the seizure of two children from Roma families in Dublin and Athlone.
GSOC has been defended in the past by many media observers after its investigations into the treatment of garda whistleblowers were perceived as being undermined by garda chiefs and leading politicians. The issue eventually led to both the resignation of the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter.
The fast-tracking of mobile communication and media production means phones are used far more often as way of imparting sensitive details. In the past, face-to-face meetings between journalists and their sources were commonplace, both for reasons of confidentiality and practicality.
Modern communication methods, such as mobile and email, have speeded up the transfer of information but the consequence is that these means are highly discoverable. This gives those that can authorise access to apparently private communication a greater opportunity for surveillance.
This is a direct threat to a fundamental principle of democracy, which is that the media should be free and its right to protect its sources guaranteed.
The Taoiseach's intervention to defend the need for an independent media, in particular the right of reporters to access leaked and confidential information in the public interest, is to be welcomed, although he qualified the need for surveillance by differentiating between national security and other matters. The current investigation into garda leaks will have a particular resonance for those with a historic context around the need for police forces to be held to account by the media.
I worked as a newspaper reporter in central England in the 1980s when the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was holding sway over policing in that region. Not only did their methods lead to the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six, they were involved in many other miscarriages of justice.
The activities of the discredited and disbanded Serious Crime Squad were well known even at the time and questions about their activities were being raised with journalists by ordinary beat officers within the West Midlands Police Force.
Covert face-to-face conversations were often held between police officers and reporters, even sometimes in police station washrooms with the taps turned on in case there were hidden microphones or someone should overhear.
Arguably, a whistle-blowers charter would have helped expose the wrongdoings of the Serious Crime Squad sooner but the fact remains that the dissemination of information between police officers and the media plays an important part in the administration of justice.
The role of journalists - and indeed whistleblowers within police forces - means that any approval around the surveillance of media must be both exceptional and independent. It is shocking that such actions should have been taken by GSOC without the prior approval of an independent judge, a system already adopted in the UK.
It is equally shocking that such actions were in accordance with existing - and recent - legislation, namely the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011. The lack of detailed scrutiny for that and other legislation is an additional reason to have concerns around our democracy.
The Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is now bringing forward recommendations to Cabinet for an independent review of surveillance powers, which is likely lead to further legislation.
Meantime, the Government will be extremely anxious to avoid any comparisons with the phone-bugging scandals that were perpetrated here during the early 1980s in relation to journalists Bruce Arnold, Geraldine Kennedy and Vincent Browne.
Monitoring communications has become far more widespread and complex than it was in the 80s with the digital revolution leading to a proliferation of vast quantities of discoverable data.
This in turn has given journalists far greater opportunities to pursue data-driven stories that are directly relevant to the public interest. Ironically, those journalists have to resort to lengthy and frustrating Freedom of Information requests to access the data, encountering obstacles that GSOC - and indeed the gardaí - do not have to face.
Orwell's '1984' nightmare around surveillance has now reached levels that even he could not have envisaged. Everyone's online business has become discoverable but that transparency is only a plus for journalists if they are allowed to carry out key elements of their job in confidence.
That is not a double standard. That is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy and a recognition of the public interest role that journalists have to play in guaranteeing access to the truth.
Bob Hughes is a former Deputy Director of News at TV3 and Channel 4 News producer. @bobhughesnews