If the last four years of lying over Iraq by the British and US governments have taught us anything it is surely that a free press able to probe for the truth is essential to our societies. Yet one of the key means by which a journalist can establish the truth, the use of unattributable sources, is once again under attack by the American courts, as it is from time to time by their British counterparts. Highly placed people in government who can throw light on what has happened behind the scenes are unlikely to provide information unless they are guaranteed anonymity by the journalist to whom they are speaking. The classic case, of course, was the Watergate deep-throat who 30 years ago provided the Washington Post reporters with information that helped to bring down President Richard Nixon; the two reporters kept their promise not to reveal the source's name until he identified himself just a few weeks ago. Yesterday the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in a case of two journalists who were earlier sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for contempt of court because they refused to reveal their confidential sources in research about a CIA agent. The case was a complex one but the bottom line is that Judith Miller of the New York Times has now said she will go to jail rather than name her source while Matthew Cooper of Time magazine is planning to ask for a retrail. It is extraordinary that the Supreme Court declined to hear a case of two journalists acting according to their conscience and a journalistic convention that helps to ensure that the full facts on a matter of public interest can be brought into the open. The Court may have precipated a grave confrontation between the press and the government.
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