Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anonymice

When this blogger tweeted that Labor caucus members undermining the prime minister using the cover of anonymity be exposed as self-serving manipulators, there was a tsunami of outrage from journalists about the sacred nature of anonymous sources.

"Starting point of journalism, simple as that," said one. "You're ignoring that we have a sacred duty to respect confidentiality,' said another. On it went, platitude after platitude from young scribblers clearly psyched up after repeated viewings of All the President's Men. 

Reality check for readers: The notion that our political journalists are primarily motivated by professional ethics in suppressing the names of Labor backbenchers spilling their guts in a bar on leadership "tensions" for fear of losing their seats is ridiculous.

The truth is journalists keep writing these stories about the leadership because they are 1/ easy to churn out 2/ please their editors (or more correctly keep their editors off their backs) and 3/ generate easy quick hits on websites whose business model is about generating click bait to keep advertisers happy. Public interest? Yeah right.

If only the public knew how these leadership "stories" are dashed off at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon by journos reheating self-serving claptrap from political nobodies in the belief they are Woodward wringing vital information out of a 'Deep Throat'.

You don't have to be Einstein (or, more accurately, Bernstein) to see that Kevin Rudd has been playing this game for three years, using his proxies to wage a white-anting war against the current leadership. But it would be nice (for the public at least) if journalists would  fess up and name names.

'Oh no, we can't do that,' they'll say with hand on heart, American style. 'It's part of our professional ethics that anonymous sources be protected.'

To which I say, to use the equally professional description, 'bullshit'. Most journalists of any principle know that the protection of anonymity should be used only as a last resort. Usually, it is because the source's job would be threatened (or, worse, they would be physically endangered) were they identified. To justify it, public interest must outweigh the cost of granting anonymity.

The best approach, at least according to respected news organisations like Reuters (for whom I used to work), is that primacy be given to named sources and that anonymity be granted only when everything else fails.  And remember, Reuters is casting these rules for foreign correspondents in death-threatening war zones, not for Canberra-dwelling reporters whose greatest physical risk is being scalded by a flat white from 'Aussies' cafe.

The New York Times - probably the world's best newspaper alongside The Guardian - adopts a similar policy, pointing out the primacy of maintaining the trust  of readers.
"Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality...We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is. We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack."
Using anonymous sources should be a last resort in journalism, not a default position for reporters who need to bash out 600 words by deadline on a slow news day to serve a beast whose business model is based on endless leadership speculation and paid-for-polling.

But don't take my word for it. Listen to Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age and someone who has expressed repeated concern about the the cosy and inward-looking loop of political journalism in Canberra.
 "The rules of engagement in Canberra no longer serve our interests," Gawneda writes. "They encourage and support dishonesty from politicians and timidity and yes, dishonesty from reporters and commentators. The rules of engagement protect 'insiders' and keep the rest of us, we poor punters with no access to 'secrets' more or less in the dark about what's really going on. As result, there is now a great divide between insiders, those who are members of the political elite and the rest of us know-nothings, who sense that we are being fed bullshit but have no way of proving it."
Call me old fashioned, but the first principle of journalism in my experience is to serve the public, to tell the truth. It is  not to "get a good yarn" or impress your boss. If there is a vanguard in the ALP seeking to undermine Julia Gillard, name them. If you don't, you are merely being manipulated.

As to who wins out of this politically, I don't care. But I think the public has a right to know who's backing whom. So while it might make a great story to talk about "seething leadership tensions", journalists would be better advised to stop allowing themselves  to be patsies for the rats in the ranks and name them so we can all make our minds up.

THAT would be a story. Don't you think?

13 comments:

  1. "Call me old fashioned, but the first principle of journalism in my experience is to serve the public, to tell the truth. It is not to "get a good yarn" or impress your boss."

    OK, you're old fashioned (said with tongue planted firmly in cheek).

    The job of journalists these days seems to have devolved into the same pit as tabloid TV. It's just something to fill in the empty spaces between adverts.

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  2. I refer iohe evidence of the editor of the financial times at the leveson inquiry. If I recall correctly all stories had to have two verifiable sources, preferably named. "Sources say" and "it is understood" just didn't cut the mustard. I think he was only half joking that even a exclusive from the PM himself would have to be checked with another source.

    A what do I think of what I have read from Canberra this week, particularly from fairfax? they are making it up. Until they start naming people, I will continue to think that. And they wonder why fewer and fewer people ale newspapers seriously any more.

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  3. if it was revealed that the whole thing was made up... would that kill the industry? papers are dying, their credibility would be zero, just about every journo exposed as a fraudster or victim of. it's the lance armstrong of politics. sourcegate.

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    1. Their credibility is already zero and in minus territory. Almost every journo is a fraudster a liar and a shill for the Liars Party.

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  4. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly Mr D. There are two separate & counterbalancing principles here: (i) need to protect anonymity of sources who wish to remain so; & (ii) need to avoid relying on anonymity where possible. There are good reasons for both principles (the first gives security to sources and ensures that they can go to journos in the first place, but the second makes stories solid and ensures that journos can't just 'make sh@t up'. Sometimes, in the public interest, you have to break one or the other. Canberra fishbowl journos are conveniently applying the first principle and completely ignoring the second. As you point out, this bias elevates anonymity from a shield for those who need it most to a sword wielded by those seeking to serve their own interests.

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  5. The cardinal rules for deciding whether a story was fit for publication used to be: Is it accurate, balanced, timely, in the public interest and above all, true? That was pounded into me as a cadet journalist with the ABC in the '60s - an era when ethics were indispensable to responsible journalism and there was a clear line between reporting and opinion. Much of what is currently being published by the mainstream media neither satifies the once-hallowed rules nor qualifies as considered opinion. It is blatant propaganda aimed at subverting, not enlightening.

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  6. a journalist should not unmask an anonymous source, that is a massive breach of trust - the issue is that after 3 years, they should be telling the source to piss off, Rudd is not a worth story. in fact after a week or two of the initial speculation the story should have died. but the final nail, the absolute death of the story should have been the thumping defeat Rudd suffered in the vote last year. Journalists that continue to push the Rudd story are simply - shit journalists.

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  7. It seems to me that much of the criticisms levelled at today's journos stems from a notable lack of that tradition bullshit filter - a healthy dose of innate scepticism.

    While not a silver bullet to address the lack of trust in the mainstream media, a rediscovered sense of scepticism would definitely be of benefit to both the producers and consumers of said media!

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  8. "Fairfax disappoints investors with 39pc drop in earnings" source: Darren Davidson, The Australian February 22, 2013 12:00AM.
    So journalists who keep serving up crap stories like Ruddstoration will be changing careers.

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  9. Paul, you are right: there is something wrong with their bullshit filter. It drives me crazy that journalists can't see how they are being used by MPs. And it's pretty embarrassing for them, because if they can't see it, if they're so easily manipulated, then how can we believe they haven't been easily manipulated in everything else they report?

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  10. As I've said before, self-serving anonymous sources (as opposed to actual whistle-blowers, who are as rare as hen's teeth) wish to stay anonymous for but 2 reasons: they don't want to publicly associate themselves in the permanent record with a lie; and, more importantly, they don't want punters being able to assess the credibility of their claims by knowing their source. The last demonstrates that, as you say, even when justifiable, granting anonymity means deliberately denying your readers important information. Journos also usually only have two reasons for breaching their (alleged) ethical obligation to their readers to be informative by keeping their promise to their source to keep them in the shadows: to retain the cosy relationship with the source that ensures a steady drip of the tittle tattle they can use to generate content for the advertising platform they work for (which is always technically a true story because of the qualifying "sources say"), and, most importantly, the anonymity of the source ensures the news value of the story for much the same reason the source craves anonymity to prevent an assessment of credibility - if punters knew who had said what the "sources say" the story would fail the Mandy Rice-Davies test and not be worth reporting. Cf Judy Miller: "Anonymous Sources Confirm Cheney's Claims" is a news story; "Cheney's Office Staff Confirm Cheney's Claims" isn't.

    What baffles me is this: the motivation for journos to keep their political or official BFF's identity a secret is obvious; but their identity is a news story, even if it's only "ambitious second banana and spear-carrier have lunch", so why don't OTHER journos ever reveal a journo's source? It isn't because they never know - they almost always know. Why does this particular kayfabe apply not only to your own sources but to every other journo's? Don't journos have an ethical obligation to their readers to provide this vital information about the source of someone else's story? Or are they all too worried about the possibility of mutual assured destruction when everybody starts revealing everybody's secrets, and consequently demonstrates the incestuous nexus between our political system and the political media that likes to pretend it is an independent observer and reporter on our political system rather than an integral part of it.

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  11. When Laurie Oakes won a Gold Walkley for merely selecting the most devastating time to use a leak from an anonymous source I was gobsmacked.
    It certainly suggested to other journalists that this was a very easy way to get one. Cultivate those who have an axe to grind, repeat what they say regularly - you can even get Uhlmann to create a skit around such statements - and you are on your way.
    What these journalists don't seem to realise is that they have nothing to hang their own credibilty on. For all we know they could be making this stuff up, although it will be fascinating to see what bombshells are dropped during this years election compaign. You never know, there might be a Walkley in it.

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  12. Why blame Rudd, he is entitled to speak you know.

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