Closer to the truth

As a result of the most recent report on Cardinal Danneels, various readers expressed their discomfort about making the content of a confidential conversation public.

I can understand that. Confidential conversations should be able to remain confidential. People should not constantly have to worry about their private conversations being published in great detail in a newspaper. However, in this exceptional case I believe there was no other way.

Amongst the hundreds of reactions, a limited minority believes that with the ‘Danneels-tapes’ De Standaard ‘abused the freedom of the press for the purpose of sensationalism.’ ‘By publishing the tape recordings, which were obtained deceitfully, the paper has crossed a line’, one reader writes. ‘Nobody starts a conversation with honorable intentions while secretly carrying a tape recorder.’

Many other readers responded positively and believe the victim had no other choice but to publish the content of his conversation with Danneels. Otherwise it was his word against Danneels. By publishing the entire conversation, the readers could draw their own conclusions.

A long deliberative process proceeded the publication (DS August 25), says editor in chief Bart Sturtewagen. Firstly the authenticity of the recording had to be checked.

The author of the article had been in possession of the transcription the victim had produced of the secret sound recording for about ten days. ‘I did not want to proceed with the publication based on the transcription alone,’ states the involved journalist. ‘I personally wanted to hear the sound recording first, and check if every word of the transcription was actually spoken.’

In addition the editor presented the recording to a sound technician. He confirmed that the recording was not manipulated in any way.

The recording contains two conversations in one continuous recording: the first took place between cardinal Danneels and the victim. For the second conversation the cardinal and the victim moved to another room in the abbey of Steenbrugge, for an audience with ex-bishop Vangheluwe and a few of the victim’s family members.

‘The transcription of the first conversation has been published in full,’ declares the editor. ‘Not a single word of this conversation was removed or omitted. We even left any meaningless words and clauses, precisely because we wanted to display an uncensored text.’

Only an extract from the second conversation with the family was published, in part because the omitted sections show the painful family history of this abuse, and because third parties are mentioned.

The question remains whether it was absolutely necessary from a journalistic perspective to breach the confidential nature of the conversation between Danneels and the victim. Did it not suffice to point out that the editorial staff had the sound recording in its possession, with a reference to its nature?

‘There was little discussion about publishing the text of the conversation in full,’ says editor in chief Bart Sturtewagen. ‘As other people noted afterwards: we wanted the text to speak for itself. With regard to the secret recording, we noted an association with the rules regarding undercover journalism. It concerned sufficient social interest: the tape recording clearly contradicted statements the cardinal had made previously. And the information could not be obtained in any other way.’

Eventually the most important consideration, says the editor in chief, was the understanding that it would be indefensible if it turned out De Standaard had withheld this information from the public. ‘The text is part of the legal file. The victim presented the recording. The content of the conversation would have become known in any case.’

Through this publication the cardinal’s reputation has been damaged, nobody is contesting that. However, according to professional ethics, journalistic responsibility is defined by the public’s right to know the facts. Therefore it concerns an assessment between the importance of the publication and respecting the cardinal’s rights.

In my opinion the balance is in favor of publication. The way the church authorities in this country handle sexual abuse by priests has been the subject of significant social discussion for months. By releasing the conversation between Danneels and the victim, we have moved closer to the truth. In addition, since every editorial selection is apparently immediately regarded as subjective interference, the full account of the conversation was justified.

This column was originally published in De Standaard on Sept. 6, 2010.

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