by Alan Sunderland, Journalism Advocate, Fourth Estate

Let’s consider three different scenarios.

In London, somebody leaks the private cables of the British Ambassador to the US, showing what a low opinion he has of the administration of President Trump.

In Australia, somebody leaks the details of allegations of serious misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan.

In the US, someone hacks into and then leaks masses of Democratic Party emails which reveal a range of problematic and controversial  behaviour by senior party officials, including Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

In every one of those cases, those responsible for the leaks have been threatened with arrest, imprisonment or at the very least losing their jobs. Their crime? Take your pick – betraying their country, undermining democracy, handling stolen documents, playing into the hands of their country's enemies, cooperating with foreign powers.

The threats and the dangers are real both for the journalists involved and for their sources. Broadly speaking, the voices baying for blood in each of these cases fall into two different camps.

The first are those who simply have no time for media freedom in such situations. They argue that journalists who receive secret documents should simply hand them back or risk prosecution. They say there is no special dispensation for journalists, they are not above the law, and it is not for them to decide to reveal information which the state has decided to keep secret to aid the proper running and good governance of the nation. In  other words, it is not a case of balancing competing fundamental rights – the journalists are in the wrong, and are working against the interests of their own nation.

There is not much to say about this camp except that they are fools if they think that suppressing the media is a useful approach to good government. That way lies tyranny. They need to be resisted at every opportunity, because a government that shuts itself off from proper scrutiny is an oppressor of its own people.

But there is a second camp, and those are the ones I want to spend some time on here. In some ways they are both more dangerous and more effective than the first group, because they make their attacks on journalism while continuing to claim the high moral ground and asserting that they support a free press.These are the voices who claim journalism has every right to do its job and report in the public interest, provided it does it properly and responsibly. 

So in the case of the leaked private cables about Donald Trump, the argument goes that there was no intrinsic public interest or matter of great national import in leaking the cables, they were just glorified gossip and scuttlebutt that served only to damage Britain's interests for no good reason.

In the case of the Afghanistan allegations, they were already known to the investigating authorities, there was a process underway, and the media had no reason to agree to accept stolen top secret documents and report on their contents.

Finally, in the case of the leaked Democratic cables, there are the twin bogeymen of Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. One, so the argument goes, is not a journalist at all but someone who believes there should be no secrets at all and simply dumps everything he gets into the public domain while the other is the leader of a foreign nation cynically interfering in US politics to try and swing an election for his own purposes. In this case, Putin was a foreign agent and Assange his willing dupe.

These arguments allow people to oppose the actions of the journalists on each and every occasion while still claiming they support a free press in principle.

In response, I want to begin by making two broad points. The first is that journalists do have to behave appropriately if they want the protections afforded to the fourth estate. With rights come responsibilities, and journalists need to act according to the ethics of the profession if they want the freedoms that come with that job.

The second point, though, is that it is hard to think of a worse judge of whether a journalist is behaving appropriately than the very government (or police force, judiciary, army) whose actions are being held to account and found wanting. If governments are free to determine whether their critics are acting fairly, soon there will be no critics left.

nstead, there are well established professional codes and ethics that journalism lives by, and no shortage of professional bodies (and often, in the case of broadcasters, independent licensing bodies) ready to hold journalists to account.

Many readers here will know that the Fourth Estate is in the process of developing a code of practice of its own to capture the foundations of good journalism as we believe them to be. But in the meantime, based on many years of experience in advising on media ethics, I want to deal with some of the key ethical considerations that I believe journalists should keep in mind when doing stories like the three examples given above.

1. Is it a story?

An obvious question, but an important one. In any story that involves revealing secrets, invading privacy, making accusations or dealing with sensitive information, it is important to establish that there is a legitimate public interest in doing the story at all. If the story is not revealing something that the public needs to know, then it can be very hard to justify. The most common reasons for revealing secret information are to expose corruption or wrongdoing, to reveal important policy matters which the public has a right to know about, to expose and question the behaviour of public officials and to generally assist people with the knowledge and information they need to be fully functioning citizens in a democracy. 

2. Why am I doing the story?

This goes to the need for a journalist to ensure they are acting fairly and impartially when they report on significant issues. I often say that the toughest questions a journalist needs to ask on a story are the questions they ask themselves. Am I chasing this story because it is important, or because it suits my own prejudices or opinions? Am I being fair to everybody in the way I am approaching it? Am I considering all the facts, even if those facts make the story less strong? Am I allowing my own views to influence the decision to do the story, or am I genuinely letting the facts and their importance guide me? 

3. Is it a threat to national security?

It is seldom well understood that journalists and newsrooms will often hold back on stories where there is a legitimate national security issue at stake. If the pursuit of a story is genuinely going to put lives at risk by exposing sensitive undercover operations, revealing information that could lead to or facilitate  terrorist attack or undermine an imminent police or military operation, that story will often be delayed or cancelled unless there is an overwhelming need to expose wrongdoing. The key, of course, is that the journalists make that decision after being presented with valid and compelling information. The mere assertion of a blanket need to ‘protect national security' is not enough.

4. Is the source reliable?

Here's the thing about journalists' confidential sources: they are very seldom altruistic or selfless. Information is most often leaked to journalists because someone has a grudge or a score to settle. Journalists always need to keep this in mind and factor it in when assessing the reliability of the information they are receiving, but that is never a reason not to do the story. You may be provided with evidence of corruption or bad behaviour because someone else is out for revenge  but if it can be proved, bad behaviour is bad behaviour and deserves to be reported regardless of how you find out about it. So when it comes to sources, the main thing to satisfy yourself about is whether they really are who they say they are, and whether their reason for having access to the information is clear and credible 

5. Can I verify the information?

This can be the hardest part of the process, but a good journalist will take the time to try and verify the information  through other sources. The more confidential and secret the information the harder it can be to verify, but there are almost always ways of cross-checking times and dates and other confirmatory details to add weight to the veracity of the information.

6. Am I providing a fair right of reply?

The final step, and not one to be treated lightly. Journalists never like to show their hand too soon by going to those accused of bad behaviour and seeking a response before  they are ready. The risks of legal action or other steps to stop a story are real and constant. But at the end if the day, giving people a fair and reasonable opportunity to respond to criticisms made of them is one of the best ways to protect against overcooked or inaccurate stories.

That's not an exhaustive list, but it is a broad summary of the steps good journalists undertake when reporting confidential or sensitive matters based on leaks of official information.

I invite you to go back and think about the three examples at the head of this article, and form your own views on whether they pass muster as valid and important pieces of public interest journalism.

When I go through that process, there is no doubt in my mind that all three are legitimate stories that the public has a right to know about. I think the British public is entitled to know when its official representatives abroad have strong negative views about another government. I think the Australian public is entitled to know if its own troops have been accused of terrible behaviour on the battlefield, and I think the American public is entitled to know if key figures in one of the major political parties in the country have behaved inappropriately or hypocritically.

On the last story,  there can and will be legitimate questions about how the information was gathered and disseminated, but I don't believe those questions mean the stories should not have been done pr that people should go to jail for revealing them.

Governments and other official public bodies are allowed to keep secrets, but journalists are allowed to expose those secrets when there is a public interest in doing so. Ultimately, a democracy that is open to criticism, reflection and debate will be stronger not weaker.