Sam Sole opens an interesting door to the relationship between forensic professionals and investigative journalists in a story first published in The Media magazine.
The relationship between journalists and forensic professionals is a tricky one.
I recently addressed two conferences of what one might call ‘proper investigators’ (as opposed to enthusiastic amateurs like me) from the private sector – accountants, lawyers, ex-cops – who service the growing business of forensics.
The topic was the synergy between investigative journalism and forensic investigators. What is the appropriate relationship?
Professional investigators – whether from the state or private sectors – tend to be nervous of journalists, seeing them as a risk rather than a resource and a potential ally in bad times.
They also tend to hide behind the rules: “We’re not allowed to talk to the media”, when the situation often demands a morally more courageous approach – which brings with it some tough ethical choices.
This is hard for forensic professionals who are reared in a culture of ‘confidentiality’ rather than disclosure.
How often is the explosive forensic report buried for years, because it is politically or financially damaging? How often is the crooked director or bureaucrat allowed to quietly resign?
What I tried to do was to get my audiences to question some of their ethical assumptions and think about the possibilities (and benefits) of a more radical approach to information sharing and disclosure.
After all, we often have common interests and objectives.
The media can be a useful ally in resisting a client’s attempts to cover up or manipulate an investigation – assuming you accept you have a wider ethical obligation other than just to the client.
This is particularly important, I argued, when forensic professionals come up against investigations that are politically highly charged – and carry with them the threat of being interfered with or closed down.
What would have happened, I asked, if former National Director of Public Prosecutions, Vusi Pikoli had held a press conference immediately after his showdown with President Mbeki over the Jackie Selebi investigation?
Instead he kept his counsel in the face of attempts to interfere in the independent exercise of his constitutional mandate – and was suspended for his trouble. (To be fair, Advocate Pikoli – who now heads the forensic unit of a big audit firm – told me afterwards he never saw the suspension coming.)
There is in principle no reason why lawyers, accountants and other forensic practitioners should not be whistle-blowers; why they should not be moved by the same sense of needing to expose wrong-doing that would otherwise likely remain hidden.
Yes, by disclosing confidential material, they will be breaking a professional code, but then most confidential sources take similar risks to their jobs, if not to life and limb.
Also, it is worth remembering that disclosure need not be an all-or-nothing affair.
Most of my relationships with forensic professionals have been such that they have barely strayed beyond ethically defensible norms.
Usually, only small bits of information have been disclosed, which have tended to be significant to me because I have done my homework and have an existing information matrix.
It has also often been more of an information exchange, where I have insights or information to trade – which is something most professionals can justify ethically.
I also tried to offer a bit of a roadmap for dealing with journalists – which may be relevant to other professionals who interact with the media.
Confidential disclosure is an act of trust and you should choose which journalists to trust with the same care you would take in any trust-based relationship. It needs to be forged out of professionalism and mutual respect, understanding that each side has different boundaries they need to observe.
Here are a few ethical protocols for co-operation with journalists I would like to suggest:
- Don’t try to manipulate the media. It can backfire rather horribly. Confidential disclosure is a contract of good faith, not a transaction.
- Be open about your legitimate agenda – and don’t try to conceal countervailing information. But don’t try to prescribe the angle. As a confidential source, you have the right to have your identity protected, but you don’t have the right to determine the angle of a story.
- Don’t hold back unnecessarily. Journalists really have very limited capacity – and it’s usually a waste of time to provide a general allegation and then say: “now you go and investigate”. If you feel you can’t provide internal documentation, then provide leads, contacts and as much detail as you can so that a journalist can independently retrace the investigation.
- Make sure you have a clear and common understanding of what information may be used and what may not – and how it may be attributed.