Sep 14, 2018

New Uber lawsuit shines light on reporter-source relationships

Rachel Whetstone. Photo by Toru Yamanaka//AFP/GettyImages

Former Uber Southeast Asia executive Eric Alexander this week sued former Uber communications chief Rachel Whetstone (soon joining Netflix) for allegedly breaching a two-way non-disparagement agreement.

Why it matters: This case could remind potential media sources they have few legal privacy protections.

The details: Alexander's complaint relates to the 2014 rape of a female Uber passenger in India, and media reports that Alexander obtained the victim's medical records and handled them improperly.

  • In his filing, Alexander claims he received the documents legally from an Uber-retained India law firm (as part of the overall case file,) and at the request of Uber corporate.
  • He also believes Whetstone was a source of the media reports, although she was not identified in the reports and Alexander presents no specific evidence.

Between the lines: There is lots of he-said/she-said stuff in the complaint, but let's just focus on the core claim and the case's broader implications:

  • The involved reporters (Recode's Kara Swisher and Bloomberg's Eric Newcomer) are covered by a media shield law in California, so neither would be required to divulge their sources.
  • But Rachel Whetstone would have no such protections and, in theory, the judge could allow a plaintiff request for things like phone or email records. Particularly if Alexander persuasively claims that it's the only viable way to discover a core piece of potential evidence.
  • Sources don't have legal privacy protections, according to a media attorney who spoke with Axios. They are almost never sued because it's highly unusual for a "violated" party to know a leaker's identity with any degree of certainty, but theoretically it can happen.
  • Alexander's decision to only sue Whetstone — after reportedly considering a broader defendant class — likely speaks to his effort to minimize the appearance of a fishing expedition.

Be smart: That said, even if Alexander can receive Whetstone's records — and even if they show she communicated with the reporters about him (yes, a big "if") — he would still have to prove that her comments were factually untrue.

Whetstone declined comment, and Alexander's attorney didn't get back to me. Uber, which isn't named as a defendant, also declined comment — including on the question of if it did or didn't ask Alexander to obtain the victim file — as did former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

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