Boston Globe criticised for outing FBI informant

Monday, October 17, 2011

James Bulger in 1994
Image: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Boston Globe has been criticised for jeopardising the safety of a confidential FBI informant last week. The story written by Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe and has quickly stirred up a storm of criticism.

The informant led the FBI to James 'Whitey' Bulger, a former mob boss in the Boston area, who is accused of committing 19 murders in South Boston. The informant was rewarded US$2 million dollars for their efforts in reporting the whereabouts of Bulger and was also promised complete anonymity.

It is legal for The Boston Globe to release the informant's details under the US Constitution, but it does raise ethical issues for the journalists involved. What they write could potentially put the informant in harm's way and also tarnish the FBI's reputation.

Former federal prosecutor Michael Kendall told Joe Dwinell of the Boston Herald that it might be the publication's “constitutional right — but it doesn’t mean you should.”

It is feared that this case will scare people off from assisting law enforcement with confidential tips on the whereabouts of criminals. This could have major ramifications for the FBI's work on terrorism and organized crime cases.

In The Huffington Post, Rebecca Shapiro outlined how dangerous it is to release the details of a confidential informant. "Releasing her identity could not only put the tipster in danger, but could also dissuade future people from providing information to the FBI for other cases", she said.

The Boston Globe has released a statement clarifying that they felt it was necessary to publish the full details of the story and that doing so would not put the informant in any danger. Peter Schworm wrote in The Boston Globe, "Editors who oversaw the Globe story said they deliberated at length over whether to print her name, but were ultimately convinced that doing so posed no danger." The Boston Globe is standing staunchly behind the two journalists who wrote the story, Murphy and Cramer, with a number of defenses, the most prominent of which was that identifying the informant "served a vital public interest".