iMediaEthics received an e-mail from a student working toward her master’s degree in international journalism at City University London. The student, Anna Gorczynska, asked us about “the ethical issues surrounding journalistic sourcing, with focus on Nick Martin-Clark’s case.”
We were unfamiliar with the case at the time, which was heavily reported in Irish and British papers in 2003. We’ve looked into the case and now offer some background and our thoughts.
Martin-Clark was a freelance reporter who interviewed a prisoner, Clifford George McKeown, in Northern Ireland in 1999.
McKeown reportedly told Martin-Clark, after being promised confidentiality, that he murdered a Catholic taxi driver, Michael McGoldrick. As the BBC recounts, McKeown reportedly told Martin-Clark that the killing was a “birthday present” for a loyalist.
Martin-Clark then wrote about the confession for the Sunday Times in December 1999. “He then made a statement to police, who sought an order forcing him to hand over his notebooks,” the Glasgow Herald reported in a Jan. 14, 2003 article. [See The Herald’s article “Murder was birthday gift, trial told; Glaswegian taxi driver ‘shot as present for loyalist chief.”]
Not only did Martin-Clark out McKeown, but he also “gave evidence in court” against him. Martin-Clark resigned from the National Union of Journalists, and McKeown was convicted for murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
“After swearing me to silence about the killing, he then boasted about it to me. It would have been easier to keep his secret because my life has been disrupted – we have had to move house and I am now on a witness protection programme for the rest of my life. But despite the difficulty of going against a source this was a promise I eventually felt, after some agonising, that I could not keep.”
As Martin-Clark sees it, “An absolutist stance on confidentiality is akin to total pacifism or to not telling a lie even to save a life. It is an eccentricity that has little to offer real world journalism.”
Martin-Clark defended his decision to participate in the trial as potentially preventing another death.
“Still, I do not regret continuing with the trial. Someone who might well have killed again will now almost certainly never have the chance to do so, and the public appreciation expressed by Sadie McGoldrick for my role makes all the difference to me.”
(McGoldrick’s widow, Sadie, is quoted as saying that her family is “very thankful” for Martin-Clark’s actions. Her comments were quoted in the Belfast Telegraph’s July 31, 2003’s article, “Union kicks out journalist; NUJ says he betrayed source by helping jail killer.”)
Great Reporter criticized Martin-Clark’s decision to out McKeown’s confession as weakening the credibility of journalism.
“Martin-Clark’s actions were nearsighted because they only fulfilled an immediate social good. Although it is certainly in the public’s interest to put away a cold-blooded murderer, it cannot be done at the expense of journalists’ credibility.
“He might have gotten one murderer sentenced, but he endangered the possibility of journalists putting away hundreds more in the future.”
Further, Great Reporter suggested that “In the long run both journalism and society could suffer from his actions.” However, Great Reporter also criticized the police and prosecutors for not investigating independently of Martin-Clark’s report.
The National Union of Journalists’ “freelance organiser” at the time, John Toner, is quoted as saying in The Belfast Telegraph’s July 31, 2003 article that Martin-Clark violated the NUJ’s code of conduct.
“Clause seven of the NUJ’s code of conduct says that a journalist shall protect confidential sources of information and Mr Martin -Clark did not do that. As I understand, he went to the police and volunteered information that Clifford McKeown confessed to an unsolved murder,” Toner is quoted as saying.
“The NUJ was horrified that Mr Martin-Clark simply ignored such a basic principle of journalistic ethics and I understand a lot of our members who work in the north of Ireland are very concerned about his behaviour and the repercussions it may have on them.
“When a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality, the journalist must adhere to that promise.”
iMediaEthics’s view from the information we have cited above is that Martin-Clark’s ethical duty was to protect his source best he could. Source confidentiality is a serious promise that can not be simply waved away by the reporter after the promise is given.
But, that is not how Martin-Clark appears to have seen it. Martin-Clark reportedly thought the “deal was off” between McKeown and himself. As the Belfast Telegraph reported in the July 31, 2003 article, “When McKeown broke off contact with the freelance journalist, Mr Martin-Clark felt the deal was off and reported his confession to police.” [See the Telegraph’s article “Union kicks out journalist; NUJ says he betrayed source by helping jail killer NUJ says he betrayed source by helping jail killer.”]
Relevant to this case study is the 2005 arrest of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller went to jail for 85 days in the name of protecting her source. She only outed her source – and left jail – after her source “waived” his confidentiality.
However, Martin-Clark’s violation of source confidentiality isn’t the only ethical gray area in the Martin-Clark story.
Martin-Clark reportedly misrepresented himself in order to interview McKeown. While Martin-Clark did tell McKeown “he was a journalist,” he “posed as a parliamentary researcher to get access to McKeown whilst he was serving a sentence in Maghaberry jail.”
Martin-Clark “admitted that in his bid to secure a meeting with McKeown he had used a false logo, downloaded from the Internet, in a letter which was made to look as though it came from” a member of Parliament’s office, as the Belfast Telegraph reported in Jan. 14, 2003’s “Journalist ‘misled prison service.'”.
“I did on one occasion do that and it is a mistake I regret, for which I would like to take this occasion to apologise,” Martin-Clark is quoted as saying.
Also, Martin-Clark reportedly said he wouldn’t have violated his promise of confidentiality with McKeown if he “had helped him write a book on the [Loyalist Volunteer Force] and security force collusion,” the Belfast Telegraph reported Jan. 17, 2003. [See the article: “I’m not a hypocrite: journalist.”]
Martin-Clark was paid £7,500 for his Sunday Times article.
iMediaEthics can understand struggling with how to report sensitive and criminal information. But, if Martin-Clark did indeed misrepresent himself and break confidentiality, as reported by the Irish and British newspapers, iMediaEthics agrees with the National Union of Journalists’ decision to remove him from the group.
We advocate that reporters adhere to the fairly standard media ethics values described in ethics codes from the US-based Society of Professional Journalists and European Journalism Centres’ code of ethics. Flagrant violations of ethics hurt the entire media industry as it makes it harder for journalists to maintain the trust of the public and be provided sensitive information.
UPDATE: 12/5/2010 3:03 PM EST: Note: We were unable to link to many stories because the articles were found through LexisNexis. As a result, we provided the article’s title, publication date and publishing newspaper.
CORRECTION - September 19, 2017 6:06 AM EST
Martin-Clark wasn’t kicked out of the National Union of Journalists; he resigned.Thank you to NUJ Ethics Chair Professor Chris Frost for letting us know!