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public editor

Before last weekend’s essay by the whistle-blower who shared top-secret intelligence documents with The Globe and Mail, there were skeptics who wrote to me questioning whether there really was a confidential source for those documents.

The source risked prosecution under the Security of Information Act, but one reader wondered if the information was provided out of concern for the country or to achieve partisan points.

Another understood the need to protect the confidential source but still wished for greater transparency in such cases to enhance trust in reporting.

This is key. Transparency can never be fully achieved if it means people must risk their lives or freedom to inform the public. But every effort should be made to balance their trust and safety with providing readers with as many details as possible about where and who information comes from.

Like you, I do not know who the source is. Confidentiality must be very tightly held with a reporter and their editor – and in this case editor-in-chief David Walmsley – while they determine whether the information can be trusted. After all, it is The Globe’s reputation, not the confidential source’s, on the line.

In all cases, The Globe takes very seriously the need to protect such sources and has gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, at considerable expense, to protect confidentiality. In the case before the court, it was to protect a source in the sponsorship scandal (which began with Globe and Mail reporting in 1999) and led to a public inquiry.

The Globe lists its conditions for using confidential sources in its Editorial Code of Conduct. Among other conditions, the story must be in the public interest and involve getting vital information, not “speculation or ad hominem criticism.”

In an interview this week with The Decibel, Mr. Walmsley questioned why information about potential interference in elections should be considered classified at all. “If you get into the way material is gathered, that may cause a problem, but if you are revealing that the electoral system faces harm, I don’t think that should be criticized.”

You will notice, though, that no one in government has questioned the accuracy of the reporting. This is unlike in 2019 when, initially, the Prime Minister tried to cast doubt on allegations that then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressed to take action in court proceedings against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

Last weekend’s essay by the confidential source makes the key point that election interference is not a partisan issue, nor a China issue, but one of protecting our democracy – and not just at the federal level. And the source makes clear that they have voted Liberal and hope to do so again.

Yet many of the complaints I received were indeed partisan. At first it was from readers who said The Globe was biased against the Prime Minister. Then people on the other side complained that The Globe wasn’t critical enough of the Prime Minister’s appointment of a family friend, former governor-general David Johnston, as special rapporteur to investigate the allegations of election interference.

It’s important to remember that, as with the SNC-Lavalin story at the time, we are still midstory and much more reporting will be done.

The Globe has been writing for years about election interference at various levels of government. Not surprisingly with a story dependent on national security information, it has been difficult to get to the truth.

This week, after the essay ran in Opinion, the complaints have slowed considerably, with one reader saying he appreciated the effort at transparency, and the partisans have grown quieter, perhaps noticing that while some columnists praised the appointment of Mr. Johnston, others raised concerns.

There has been more praise than usual in the comments for the work, and especially for the whistle-blower, with some calling their decision to share the information patriotic and agreeing that the issue must be apolitical.