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?