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By Jennifer Chen

The relationship between the journalist and the source can be one of symbiosis or of transaction, said Ben Doherty, Immigration Correspondent for The Guardian Australia.

The debates of democracy, moral and legal obligations, matters of livelihood and even death are just some of the many keystones that lie at the heart of Marian Wilkinson and Ben Doherty’s panel discussion with Kate McClymont.


“The first question is always why is this source coming to me?” While there are sources motivated by pure disclosure, both Doherty and Wilkinson agree that there are still too many motivated by transaction: notably politicians.

As Ben Doherty said, “there is no one single path on how to cultivate a source”, just as there is no single solution to end the investigative journalist’s “ethical juggle”. The ethical dilemma extends beyond the realms of fact-checking, into that of a moral obligation to both the truth and the lives of sources. As Wilkinson said, there is a “real sense of obligation if you’re asking a source to jeopardise their livelihood.”

Drawing on her career in investigative journalism, McClymont retold how often highly impactful journalism cannot be brought before the public. For fear of litigation, editors cut off stories, should sources refuse to “get in the witness box” when court cases are filed.

To date, the world still does not know the sources behind the Panama Papers scandal. Wilkinson said this process of collaboration between hundreds of journalists to keep their promise is critical not only to protecting the lives of sources, but also to the devotion of fellow journalists on the same case.

“You can spend decades in building a reputation in protecting sources and you can burn it down in one year,” said Doherty. This highlights another dimension to the debate, being the livelihoods of journalists. The temptation for journalists to ‘burn their source’, or identifying an unwilling source to get a story published, is one that McClymont said she would never fall into.

The legal restrictions journalists are subject to further complicate the matter. Doherty said the “chilling effect” of whistleblower legislation, the Border Force Act and metadata laws are all dangerous to the democracy the nation prides itself in.

While there is no end in sight to a solution to the investigative journalist’s dilemma, Wilkinson ended the panel by urging attendees to take one step at a time: by tweeting to take a stand against the Federal Police’s recent breach of metadata law.

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