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Never reveal your sources — Reporters must take secrets to the grave

(John Coulter, Irish Daily Star)

If you can't keep your gob shut about your sources, never, Never, NEVER become a journalist.

And sod those morons who say there are exceptional circumstances to blow your sources' covers.

Such people live in ivory towers and probably have never worked on the street as a weekly newspaper hack.

They like to indulge in 'whatifery' – what if your source tells you about a terror campaign? What happens if your source is a wife beater?

Too bad. When a reporter gives their word not to reveal the identity of confidential sources providing genuine information, then you take those secrets to your grave.

This is not an easy decision. I should know. I've been through the personal and professional mincing mill when I investigated the then taboo subject of collusion between the security forces and loyalist death squads in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I was a researcher on the controversial 1991 Dispatches programme which probed such allegations. I was later quizzed by two smoking peelers from CID, determined to unmask my RUC Inner Circle source.

Even before being questioned by cops, a loyalist source told me to my face I would be shot dead if I squealed.

The personal price was even higher. Coming from a unionist, Orange, Irish Presbyterian background, probing allegations about the RUC was considered treason – especially as I had RUC relatives murdered by the Provos.

Some fanatically RUC supporting colleagues in the media told me my career as a weekly newspaper editor was over. It was.

Backdoor channels told me I could either leave the country if I wanted to remain as a reporter, or quit journalism if I wanted to stay in the North.

I'm a real home bird, so I turned my back on full time journalism and indulged myself in the necessary evil of being a public relations director in the private health sector and also working in tele-evangelism.

For the next 16 months, the most controversial person I interviewed was a little old lady who recalled how she and her boyfriend were making love on a haystack when Nazi bombers flew overhead to blitz Belfast.

When I tried to get back into full time journalism, no one would hire me. I was branded a trouble maker, shit stirrer and too much of political hot potato to employ.

Then there were the personal rows. Unionist pals shunned me, openly branding me a 'traitor' because I had dared to question things which, to them, should have been left unsaid.

A peeler's son was one of my best mates. He told me never to come to his family home again in case his da got blamed for giving me the stuff on the Inner Circle.

Some of the more vicious 'pals' from my school days wanted my classroom nickname changed from Budgie Coulter to Bunting Coulter – a reference to Ronnie Bunting Junior.

He was the son of Major Ronald Bunting. While the major had been at one time one of Paisley senior's top aides, Ronnie junior teamed up with the INLA and was shot dead by loyalist gunmen in mysterious circumstances.

Keeping your reporter mouth shut about journalistic sources is not about becoming a martyr for press freedom.

It's about wondering where your next paycheque will come from; lying awake listening to the sound of every car entering your cul de sac; trying to figure out how to defuse family tensions and mend broken friendships.

I've met many confidential sources in my 30 plus years in journalism. All it takes is to shaft one and your entire credibility goes down the toilet bowl.

When I die and am cremated, two coffins will be burned. One for my earthly remains, the other for secrets promised.

Keeping your lip buttoned is not a glamour business. It can be a lonely, frightening responsibility. But for the sake of a free press, it has to be done.

May 19, 2009

This article appeared in the May 18, 2009 edition of the Irish Daily Star.



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