Does Promise of Anonymity Apply to Dead Sources?

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By: David Bauder, AP Television Writer

(AP) The BBC’s admission that a scientist who committed suicide was its main source for critical stories on the war in Iraq has focused attention on whether a news organization’s promise of anonymity extends beyond the grave.

The British Broadcasting Corp.’s May 29 report quoted an anonymous source as saying government officials had “sexed up” evidence about Iraqi weapons to justify war.

Scientist David Kelly committed suicide on Friday just days after being called before a parliamentary committee to question his participation in the story. He had admitted talking to the BBC but said he didn’t believe he was the main source.

But the BBC on Sunday issued a statement saying that he was.

With controversy over the war still fresh, the story has become a huge issue for Prime Minister Tony Blair and the BBC, and is also being followed in the United States for its question of journalistic ethics.

“The protection of sources is of paramount importance to what we do,” said Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News. “Without sources who believe that you will fulfill your promise, it puts journalists in this country in a seriously bad position.”

Under normal circumstances, a promise of anonymity is honored even if a source dies, Slavin said. But he would not comment on the BBC’s decision in the Kelly case.

Several journalists in the United States were reluctant to address the question. News executives at The New York Times and CNN, for example, refused interviews on the subject.

For the BBC, it must have been a terribly difficult decision, “and they had to come to the decision under unrelenting pressure from the government that funds them,” said Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News.

“I don’t know if we have all the information that we would like to have before commenting on whether the BBC did the right or wrong thing,” Wheatley said.

The BBC was not the first to name Kelly; his bosses at the Ministry of Defense had identified him as a possible source for the report, which launched the parliamentary inquiry into his role.

Until Sunday, the BBC had refused to say whether Kelly, who was a top United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s, had been its source.

“We clearly owed him a duty of confidentiality,” the BBC explained in a statement. “Following his death, we now believe, in order to end the continuing speculation, it is important to release this information as swiftly as possible.”

Journalists should take pledges of secrecy very seriously, but should review them if the person dies or the story changes dramatically, as it did in this case, said Alex Jones, host of PBS’ Media Matters.

Reporters also aren’t under obligation to keep that promise if the source changes his story, he said. “I think they did protect him,” Jones said. “Protection beyond a certain point doesn’t make any sense. You’re not going to damage his career. I don’t think a gratuitous outing of somebody makes sense, but I think he was in the maelstrom of a very important situation.”

One of the few comparable cases in this country — in terms of an anonymous source being key to a story of great concern to the government — came with the fabled “Deep Throat,” a source for The Washington Post‘s stories on the Watergate investigation.

The Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, have kept their promise of confidentiality for three decades despite endless speculation on the source. They have said they will reveal the identity of “Deep Throat” only after the person dies.

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