We need our whistleblowers. But it’s harder than ever to protect them.

Journalists face new challenges to safeguarding sources in the wake of new national security laws that allow increased surveillance and storage of information and communication. As we get ready for our annual 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign this April, we’re digging up some wise words from our Walkley archives — like this 2014 article by The Age investigator Richard Baker on the importance of whistleblowers. Illustration above by The Age‘s Andrew Dyson.

In September 2008, I walked from the brown-brick toilet block that was the old Age newspaper building in Melbourne and over to a nondescript cafe on the other side of Little Londsale Street. Seated at a table inside was a man who, according to the mutual friend who arranged the meeting, had a hell of a story to tell.

Polite and self-contained, the man spoke of his work for the Reserve Bank of Australia’s currency printing company, Securency. He accused the company’s top executives of being involved in rampant bribery across Asia and Africa to secure banknote supply contracts with central banks. He certainly got my attention. However, he was not a comfortable leaker and made it clear that contacting The Age was his last resort after the federal police chose not to act on the information he had provided to it months earlier.

It took months and many meetings to win the confidence of the Securency whistleblower and to convince him to divulge enough material for me and my colleague, Nick McKenzie, to verify his claims and dig further. To win his trust we had to agree to protect his identity.

By May 2009, we had enough information to publish a front-page story revealing the massive commission payments made by the Reserve Bank’s note-printing subsidiaries to tax haven bank accounts belonging to allegedly corrupt middlemen.

None of this would have happened if it were not for whistleblowers.

It took the RBA just hours to refer the story to the Australian Federal Police. This time they had no choice but to investigate. The story prompted other insiders within the RBA to contact us and once more the slow dance between journalist and whistleblower began. Over the next two years we learned how back in 2007 the RBA had received explicit information through an internal whistleblower about its companies’ exposure to foreign bribery, but chose not to report it to federal police and instead opted to handle things internally.

Five and a half years after my first meeting with the Securency whistleblower in the coffee shop, both RBA firms have been charged with foreign bribery in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Nepal. Several former executives have been committed to stand trial in what is Australia’s first foreign bribery prosecution. RBA governor Glenn Stevens, his former deputy Ric Battellino and other senior figures have appeared before a parliamentary committee to explain their actions.

None of this would have happened if it were not for whistleblowers. When it comes to illegality and corruption in government agencies, the combination of whistleblowers and journalists is almost always required in order for wrongdoing to be exposed and change to occur. Without that combination, the temptation to cover up and spare embarrassment is too great.

The two key RBA whistleblowers, former Securency sales executive James Shelton and former Note Printing Australia company secretary Brian Hood, became important federal police witnesses and have spent days in court being cross-examined by lawyers for the accused. Hood was forced out of his job after providing evidence of bribery to senior RBA figures. Both men last year agreed to allow The Age to report their roles as whistleblowers.

My perception of whistleblowing is that it is a battle of heart versus head. The heart encourages a whistleblower to do what is morally right and act to expose corruption or malpractice, regardless of the consequences. The head urges caution and warns of the potential for stress, isolation, job loss, litigation, prosecution and, in extreme cases, death.

Despite the risks, I have been fortunate over the years to witness the heart triumph over the head more often than not. The chance to right a wrong and ensure that those in positions of authority are held to account is a powerful motivation for whistleblowers, as it is for journalists.

After 15 years as a journalist at The Age and nine in its investigative team, rarely, if ever, do I recall an important story happening without the involvement of a person or people with inside knowledge.

I wonder whether the nation’s major media outlets could be doing more to protect the security of their external communications.

Despite improved protections for whistleblowers contained in last year’s ( Editor’s note: this refers to 2013 ) federal Public Interest Disclosure Bill, exposing wrongdoing in a government agency by contacting the media remains a risky proposition. The legislation affords protection for whistleblowers to report concerns to their own agency or the Commonwealth Ombudsman (or the Inspector-General of Intelligence issues).

But it is less clear about the legality of contact with journalists, yet both common sense and experience suggest that allowing agencies to investigate themselves is likely to lead to less than transparent outcomes.

When a journalist is contacted by a whistleblower with what sounds like an amazing story, I would encourage the reporter to quickly dismiss those thoughts about the glory of a big scoop (be honest, we all have them) and focus on what will become an important and complicated relationship.

These people are placing their trust in you to look after them. It could take months for them to agree to give you a document that backs up their story. In most cases it is likely that a whistleblower will require you to protect their identity at all costs.

The protection of confidential sources is a fundamental principle of journalism and something not to be taken on lightly. The promise to protect the identity of sources can lead to a journalist facing conviction for contempt of court and possible jail. The stress, strain and expense of years in court are immense. But it is part of the job and you just have to roll with it.

So how do we as journalists go about protecting our sources? Obviously you do not go around talking about who your confidential source is and you fight any legal attempts to force source disclosure. You take extreme care with notebooks. If electronic surveillance is an issue you avoid mobile phone or email contact. You try to organise face-to-face meetings in safe locations.

All this takes time, and time is something that clashes with the media landscape we now work in, where news is constantly being updated and stories disappear from websites within hours.

The need for whistleblowers is as great as it has ever been.

In recent months, the public has become more aware of the immense electronic surveillance capabilities of the Australian and US intelligence agencies via Edward Snowden’s disclosure of National Security Agency material.

It has made me think how much attention Australia’s major newspaper and online publishers, TV networks and the ABC pay to the security of their internal and external communications.

Each day, journalists at The Age, The Australian, the Seven Network and the ABC, for example, invite members of the public to “tip us off”. Most often the direct email addresses or Twitter handles for individual journalists are provided as the points of contact.

While I have no doubt that the vast majority of Australian journalists do everything they can to uphold any promises given to a confidential source, I wonder whether the nation’s major media outlets could be doing more to protect the security of their electronic communications.

The corporate email addresses provided by many journalists as points of contact to the public have few, if any, security features. Surely this must dampen the desire of potential public service or military whistleblowers to make contact in this fashion.

With journalist numbers around the country shrinking, public relations and corporate communications ranks swelling and ongoing government secrecy about matters of national importance, the need for whistleblowers is as great as it has ever been.

Richard Baker is an investigative reporter for The Age who has won multiple Walkley Awards. Andrew Dyson is an artist for The Age. This piece was originally published in the Walkley Magazine March-May 2014.