Just when boredom was setting  in with tales of greed and corruption among our elected  servants  along comes a ruling by our highest court  significant enough to  attract international attention. Coincidentally, the facts of the case fit the theme, relating as they do to dated allegations of  impropriety on the part of former prime minister Chretien in attempting to help a businessman in his riding secure a federal loan.

The Supreme Court decided that journalists, unlike lawyers and police officers, do not have constitutional status to grant quasi absolute confidentiality to their sources, saying: “The bottom line is that no journalist can give a source a total assurance of confidentiality”. The court decided against a blanket protection for the identity of sources of published information in favour of the  much weaker protection of a case by case balancing of  confidentiality interests against the public interest, which in practice is often served  by police investigations. In the case in point an anonymous source sent a journalist a letter alleging Chretien had acted on behalf of a constituent to obtain government financing, together with a bank document – alleged to be a forgery -showing the constituent had owed $23,000 to a company owned by the Little Guy from Shawinigan’s family. The court upheld the legality of a search warrant  permitting the police to seize the document from the journalist in order to attempt to identify the sender/forger. As the dissenting judge noted, forging a bank document doesn’t rank high in the gamut of heinous crimes, but in fairness it is clear committing forgery to falsely accuse the prime minister of corruption is an aggravating factor since the public interest could be harmed by undermining confidence in the government. In any event this fact pattern is the first of many which will be used by criminal lawyers to evaluate whether they will be able to identify journalists’ sources in cases where relevent information can be obtained from them. The much larger question is whether the court’s ruling will make potential sources more fearful of being identified and less likely to provide sensitive information to the press, resulting in less public access to important information.