herald

Friday 15 December 2017

Whistleblowers and journalists help detect and prevent crime-- how can the Government expect them to betray their sources?

Schoolchildren might think garda investigations are now launched by the Minister for Justice or even the Taoiseach.

After all, in the space of a year we've seen very high-profile investigations launched into a nude portrait of Brian Cowen and the leak of Trevor Sargent's unlawful letter to the Herald.

Of course, the truth is a little more complex but 'Portraitgate' and 'Lettergate' raise serious questions about the authorities' definition of the public interest and their priorities in enforcing the law.

The Garda Commissioner and his colleagues have to decide whether it is in the public interest to launch an investigation. Rightly or wrongly, Commissioner Murphy has decided to launch an inquiry into the background to the Sargent letter controversy.

The reason for his decision is for others to figure out. It was clearly in the public interest to know that a Minister of State had unlawfully attempted to influence a garda investigation.

The first question then for the Minister for Justice and Commissioner is: why expose and investigate the whistleblower who shared this important story with the public?

In other words; why target the source and journalists who acted in the public interest? All they did was tell us what we had a right to know.

Exposing the Herald's source won't tell us any more than is already in the public domain. The only result will be the likely end of that source's career, irreparable damage to his or her good name, and untold distress to his or her family.

Likewise, the stress suffered by journalists faced by demands to reveal their sources is pointless. No public interest is served by attempting to ruin a whistleblower's career or by harassing reporters.

The Government's treatment of journalists and whistleblowers also begs questions over their commitment to tackle all crimes equally.

We know that whistleblowers and journalists have exposed the country's most serious cases of sexual abuse, corruption and bank fraud. The likes of Eugene McErlean and Olivia Greene have exposed serious wrongdoing in our banks. Others have saved the State billions in lost revenues by exposing systemic tax evasion.

People like Bernadette Sullivan have brought the necessary attention to malpractice in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital; while courageous gardai and victims of abuse uncovered systemic corruption in our police service.

British employers and the government there have long recognised the role whistleblowers play in protecting the public interest. In 1998 they introduced the world's strongest legal safeguards for this type of activity.

Why, then, has our Government refused to give everyone here the same right to speak up against wrongdoing? For example, most people working in the financial services sector in Ireland have no whistleblower protection.

If you are an employee at Anglo Irish or any other bank, you could be sacked or face legal action if you reveal confidential information to the Financial Regulator or the garda without the bank's say so.

This 'gagging clause' on serving or retired bank employees is one key reason why we never heard about Sean FitzPatrick and his dodgy loans until it was too late. It's also the reason the investigation into him and his colleagues' dealings at Anglo could take years and cost so much money.

Whistleblowers and journalists help detect and prevent serious crime. But our Government still expects journalists to betray their sources, and refuses to afford Irish whistleblowers the same legal guarantees their counterparts enjoy in the North and Britain. Now where's the public interest in that?

John Devitt is Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland, www.transparency.ie Transparency will launch a whistleblower advice centre in Dublin later this year

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