Blog by John Miller

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A good ruling

Good for the Supreme Court of Canada for deciding that journalists have the right to protect their sources when the public interest calls for it.

And good for The Globe and Mail and its reporter Daniel Leblanc for fighting so hard to establish that right, resisting a series of Quebec court rulings that could have sent the reporter to jail or forced him to betray a source who allowed him to blow the lid off the former Liberal government's sponsorship scandal.

The ruling is an important victory for investigative journalism, which often relies on information from whistleblowers who come forward with confidential information and who often risk losing their jobs if their identities are disclosed. Fewer and fewer media outlets can afford to practice that kind of journalism these days, but such journalism is often vital to the public interest.

The 9-0 decision essentially says that a case-by-case test of a journalist’s right to keep a source secret should apply in Quebec, as the court has said it does in the rest of the country.

The test, which has been set out by the courts in other cases, says generally that a journalist can keep a source anonymous if the public interest outweighs the need for the court to require the writer to reveal the name.

The Supreme Court's logic was clear in directing the Quebec Court of Appeal to reconsider its rulings against the paper: If relevant information is available to the court by other means and can be obtained without requiring the journalist to break the undertaking of confidentiality to a source, then those avenues ought to be exhausted. Requiring a journalist to breach a confidentiality undertaking with a source should be done only as a last resort.

The court stopped short of granting an automatic shield to the press but set out a four-point test it wants to see used in Quebec:

1. The nature of the confidentiality deal the report made with the source: Has the source been assured that he or she would remain anonymous?

2. Is anonymity vital to the journalist-source relationship?

3. Is the confidential relationship in the public interest?

4. Does the public interest outweigh the need for disclosure?

The case pitted a Montreal media company, Le Groupe Polygone Editeurs Inc., against Leblanc, whose award-winning stories exposed the high-profile federal sponsorship scandal. Millions of dollars of federal money were channelled to Quebec PR companies, much of it never properly accounted for. The scandal helped topple the Liberal government led by Paul Martin.

Polygone hoped to force Leblanc to reveal his confidential source -- nicknamed Ma Chouette, or "my sweetie" -- in its attempt to fight a lawsuit launched against it by the federal government, seeking to recoup $35 million the firm was paid by the former Liberal govenrmnent.

The Supreme Court also sided with the Globe and Mail against a publication ban imposed by the Quebec court that prevented Leblanc from reporting on sensitive negotiations between the federal government and Polygone to pay back the money.

On behalf of the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice LeBel wrote that "there is clearly an overarching public interest in the outcome of this dispute, and barring the Globe and Mail from publishing the information that it obtained in this regard would prevent the story from coming to light." The effect of the ban, he said, "would be to stifle the media's exercise of their constitutionally mandated role."

This is good news indeed.