herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Why the Herald is right to fight tooth and nail against revealing the source of the Sargent leak

Trevor Sargent is not a cute hoor. He does not fit the media stereotype of a glad-handing, baby-kissing, funeral-going parish-pump politician. Instead, the former Minister of State is rightly recognised as a politician of substance: a Gaelic speaking Green Protestant who would tear up a dodgy donation as quick as you'd say "Don Lydon".

Trevor is no cute hoor. But he broke the law. He got caught. He paid the price. And, to his credit, he did the honourable thing without whinging. It's not his fault that so many pundits and politicians have focused on the fact that the Herald received and published a letter to a garda which clearly broke the law. Even if you accept that Trevor did the wrong thing for the right reason, he still sought to influence the actions of the gardai in a manner which was illegal.

It might be assumed that a newspaper which exposed wrongdoing would be applauded. Instead the Garda Commissioner has ordered an investigation, assigning scarce resources to investigate the circumstances in which behaviour which Sargant himself admits was unlawful was exposed by the Herald.

Once again, journalists are waiting for the metaphorical knock on the door.

Sometimes gardai go through the motions, knowing that there's no point in throwing the book at a suspect or even an unwilling witness.

God knows this will not be the first time they have strolled into Independent House on a futile mission to convince journalists to break their code of conduct and, in the process, abandon their career prospects. An overstatement? Not all at all. A journalist who divulges confidential sources of information is a busted flush.

This time is different. It's different because the Minister for Justice has indicated that he will publish the report of the inquiry team. Mr Ahern has pledged to do so, not to protect the security of the State but to protect his political reputation.

The Garda Commissioner and the investigation team will be under pressure to publish a report, not because of a threat to the security of the State but to prove that Mr Ahern was not responsible for shafting Trevor Sargent.

This is a political issue and has damn all to do with national security.

It is safe to assume that among the ranks of the gardai and the public service, there are civic-minded citizens who may feel inclined to blow the whistle on inappropriate behaviour, on corrupt practices, on unlawful attempts to influence investigations. In other jurisdictions there is whistleblowers' legislation to protect those who act in the public interest. We need the same here -- but don't hold your breath.

The Supreme Court has recognised the right of journalist to protect confidential sources of information, in the public interest, in the landmark case involving Geraldine Kennedy and Colm Keena of The Irish Times.

If there is an attempt to force Kevin Doyle, Conor Feehan or Geraldine Gittens to reveal confidential information, this newspaper will have no difficulty in fighting such a move. It will be very easy to enter a public interest defence. The star witness would be Trevor Sargent.

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