A Vancouver Province reporter won’t have to reveal the source of damaging information that ended a West Vancouver politician’s career, the B.C. Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a decision Friday, the appeal court tossed out an earlier ruling by Justice Paul Williamson ordering Elaine O’Connor to give up the name of the source who provided a damning report about then-Liberal West Vancouver MP Blair Wilson in 2007.
In making the ruling, Justice Catherine Ryan noted that O’Connor’s promise to keep the name of the source a secret was crucial to that person providing her information.
The judge added there are many cases where information in the public interest may only come to light with the cooperation of confidential sources.
The ruling Friday is just the latest twist in a long legal drama that began after Wilson’s swift fall from high office in the fall of 2007.
Just prior to that, the confidential source gave O’Connor a copy of an anonymous report alleging that Wilson had broken the Elections Act by not listing campaign expenses properly.
Those allegations became part of a story by O’Connor, published in the Province in October 2007 that also detailed allegations by Wilson's father-in-law Bill Lougheed that Wilson had exaggerated his business successes, that Wilson and his wife owed Lougheed millions of dollars and that Lougheed felt Wilson was unfit for political office.
At the time, Wilson's wife Kelly was locked in an acrimonious battle with her father over her late mother Norma Lougheed's estate.
It was later established through various court battles that Blair Wilson did not owe money to the Lougheeds.
But the front-page article essentially spelled the end of Wilson's political career. Wilson was forced to resign from the Liberal caucus. He ran in the next federal election as a Green Party candidate and lost.
Wilson was not charged following the Elections Act audit, which concluded he had only made some minor errors in reporting.
Wilson sued O'Connor, the Province newspaper, blogger Steve Janke and other prominent federal Liberals for defamation, claiming they had played a role in distributing or publishing the allegations that destroyed his reputation.
Before the trial even started, Wilson’s lawyer Jay Straith asked in a pre-trial application for O’Connor to name her source. O’Connor refused, saying she had never broken a promise to protect a confidential source.
In December 2010, Williamson ordered O’Connor to spill the name of her source, known only as a “citizen in the riding.”
Williamson said the identity of the source was crucial to the case because it would address the question of whether the person who provided the report did so because it was in the public interest or whether they were motivated by personal or political "malice" towards Wilson.
But the appeal court did not agree.
In her ruling Friday Ryan wrote that the motives of the informant have little to do with whether the statements in the report were true or false or with the “concept of journalist-source privilege.”
Ryan added any ulterior motives of the source are irrelevant.
“The source may have hoped to destroy Mr. Wilson’s parliamentary career, but that desire would be beside the point if the information provided was true and in the public interest to reveal.”
Dan Burnett, the lawyer for the Province newspaper, said the appeal court’s decision is good news for journalists. “The decision for the journalist is that once they establish there was a confidentiality agreement with a source, the court will respect that…” said Burnett.
Burnett said the court agreed with the newspaper that the identity of the source isn’t central to the case.
But Straith, Wilson’s lawyer, said the legal fight is far from over.
“Much of what was printed is just plain factually wrong,” he said.
A date for the trial has not yet been set in B.C. Supreme Court.
Follow us on Twitter: @NorthShoreNews