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Dilemma of receiving lost documents

The revelation this week that a top secret file left on a train in London was handed to a BBC journalist raises all sorts of issues, one of which is the ethics of journalists using information they have come across by chance.

The dossier in question was left on the train by a senior British intelligence officer and found by a fellow passenger who handed to the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner.

It was, of course, the stuff journalists dream of being given. The facts of the bright orange ‘Top Secret’ folder being lost then handed to the BBC made headlines across the world and led TV and radio bulletins in Britain for days.

Although the British Official Secrets Act forbids unauthorised people – including journalists – from revealing the exact contents of the two documents in the folder, Gardner was able to describe the kind of information they contained.

‘One was about the state of Iraq’s security forces, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, he said. ‘The other one, which was much more sensitive, looked at al-Qaeda’s vulnerabilities. This document was jointly commissioned by the Foreign Office and Home Office.

‘If it fell into the wrong hands, it would have given a clear picture of the strategic overview that the UK government and allied countries have about al-Qaeda, its weaknesses and where these failings could be exploited.’

The BBC handed the folder to the police but it is unclear whether Gardner made any copies of the documents. The intelligence officer who lost the folder was suspended from duty.

The issue raised a number of ethical dilemmas for Gardner and the BBC.

On the one hand, it was the kind of gift that is almost impossible for a professional journalist to decline. Even though it was clearly somebody else’s property, was marked ‘Confidential’ and was undoubtedly the subject of a frantic search by the distressed person who lost it, Gardner did not immediately hand it to the police unopened. He looked inside and read the documents.

Should he have done this?

If someone finds a lost wallet or handbag, honest people might be expected to look through its contents until they find out to whom it belongs, close it, contact that person and return it in its original condition. The ordinary honest citizen would not be expected to read any letters or thumb through other documents, the memory of an electronic organiser or any personal items.

But, of course, this was no ordinary found object. The folder contained documents of significant public interest, albeit highly confidential and probably covered by the Official Secrets Act. Set against Gardner’s duty as an honourable, law-abiding citizen was his duty as a journalist to inform his fellow citizens of important events and issues. There is no clear cut line between these two often-competing demands. Sometimes journalists have to do things which might, in ordinary everyday life seem unprincipled, even immoral.

The important issue is not just that they try to make the right decision on which path to take, but that they do it knowingly, having weighed up all the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs of the alternatives.

Many journalists will scoff at the mere suggestion that any sensible reporter will do anything other than use important confidential documents that might fall into their hands.

But what if the person who gave Gardner the folder had actually stolen it from the intelligence officer’s bag on the train? Would Gardner’s decision have been the same? Would it have mattered whether the means had been unethical if the end was the justifiable?

There are no simple answers. In the end, every situation is different and decisions must be made afresh every time. The important thing is that the underlying ethics driving the actions should be consistent even though they might provide different outcomes in different circumstances.

Finally, is this a significant issue? How often do journalists have to make these kinds of decisions anyway? Surely not very often?

While the controversy still raged about the top secret al-Qaeda dossier, it was revealed that a second highly sensitive file about terrorism financing was mislaid the same day on a London-bound train and handed to the Independent on Sunday newspaper.

In Britain alone in the past year public servants have mislaid files, laptops or computer discs with the names, addresses and bank details of 25 million benefit recipients, three million learner drivers and 600,000 defence recruits.

These have not fallen into the hands of journalists, but it is an ever-present possibility. More commonly, every day people give journalists secret or confidential documents for a host of reasons, some honourable, others not so.

And this does not cover cases like the enterprising journalism student mentioned in Chapter 60 of The News Manual who used to search waste paper bins near photocopying machines for tasty leads to stories!

First published in The News Manual in June 2008


For more on some of the ethical issues behind this controversy, you can look in the following chapters of The News Manual:

Chapter 39: Introduction to investigative reporting and Chapter 40: Investigative reporting in practice – These look at how you deal with information you uncover or are given which other people might not want you to have.

Chapter 59: Sources of information and Chapter 60: Sources and confidentiality – These describe different ways in which journalists receive information – including leaked documents – and some of the ethical issues of dealing with them.

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