Official Secrets and Whistleblowers

Reviewed November 2019

RECEIVING leaked information from an inside source can be very tempting for a publisher in search of an exclusive story.

Caution must be exercised both with the information and the source.

Whistleblowers, if they are an employee, are breaching their duty of confidentiality to their employer. You as a publisher are also potentially breaching that duty of confidentiality.

If you are satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so, then you have a defence, see the resource page on confidentiality and privacy for guidance on public interest.

However, if the whistleblower is in government, the police, armed forces or security services then it could be more complex.

As well as breaching confidentiality they might also be breaking state secrecy laws.

Although we may regard their actions as being ‘in the public interest’ these official secrecy laws are rarely framed to allow a public interest defence.

If you decided to publish you need to be prepared for the consequences. Furthermore, you should take care that your publication does not place your source in jeopardy. If you have possession of documents or computer files, you ought to be prepared for government agencies taking legal action to obtain them.


Written by David Banks, Media Law Consultant and Trainer. David runs the Law, Ethics and Copyright workshops for NUJ Training Wales.

Written By...

David Banks

David Banks is a journalist with 24 years’ experience and delivers NUJ Training Wales’ course on Media Law and Ethics. He is a media consultant delivering training to a range of national and regional media, NGOs, government, charities, PR companies, universities and the police. He is a trainer who has created and managed successful courses in journalism, media law and production journalism. He was co-author of 18th, 19th and 20th editions of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. He writes regularly on law and the media for The Guardian, The Mirror and The Independent. He is a frequent contributor BBC TV and radio news programmes.


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