Thursday, 26 June 2014

Spineless anonymity

I sent the letter below to the Guardian following a front page story last weekend that really annoyed me, replete with many anonymous comments purporting to be form senior Labour figures, including from the shadow Cabinet, dripping political poison on their leader, Ed Miliband.


I wanted to remind the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger of his own editors’s pledge to readers he would not anonymise sources. (Some Guardian readers have long memories) He has declined to publish my criticisms. So much for editor’s promises!

When the current Guardian editor took over the post, he wrote a personal message to readers ("No more ghostly voices," July 15, 2000) that he  would implement a new reporting policy, naming political sources for stories, and not let reporters hide  behind the anonymity of unidentified faceless people.

But in your chief political correspondent's front page story on Saturday ("Labour election anxiety grows," 21 June), he relied upon anonymous  Labour "frontbenchers" and  "former ministers". Why have you dumped the very commendable policy of transparency in reportage you introduced?

The anonymous frontbencher who arrogantly asserted "Ed cannot stay on if he loses [ next year's General Election]" should have the courage of their convictions and go public on their remarks. They may also consider that as part of a front bench that should work as a team, such remarks are disruptive of  a concerted  efforts to remove this  incompetent and cruel  Coalition government, and if Labour does not win, they too should resign as part of a failed political campaign.

But hiding  behind anonymity reflects a spineless, self-interested non team player. Ed Miliband should invite them to leave his front bench immediately, as a disloyal force.

 Here is editor Alan Rusbridger’s empty pledge  

No more ghostly voices

Spin-doctors: Anonymous briefings are being abused, so Alan Rusbridger introduces a Guardian policy to give our readers a fairer deal


·         The Guardian, Saturday 15 July 2000 00.51 BST

If you concentrate hard enough tonight you may glimpse a man called Godric Smith on television. No, I had never heard of him either until recently. He is, in the nicest possible way, an anonymous looking man: balding, early forties in a self-effacing two-piece suit. What do we know about this Godric Smith? We know that, despite reading classics at Oxford, he supports struggling Cambridge United. We know he is married with two children and lives in north London. And that since 1998 he has been the prime minister's deputy press spokesman. Do I crave to know more about Godric Smith? With all respect to Mr Smith, I cannot say that I do. In an ideal world he would remain a relatively anonymous figure and be the giver of dispassionate, factual information on behalf of the prime minister. It would be nice if he would speak on the record and, preferably, on camera. Otherwise, it would be a relief to know nothing about him.

Mr Smith has a small, non-speaking role in Michael Cockerell's film about Mr Smith's boss, Alastair Campbell, which is being shown on BBC2 this evening. The two men could not be more different. Not even his worst enemy would call Mr Campbell shy, self-effacing or balding. Unlike Mr Smith, Mr Campbell is not a career civil servant. Whereas Mr Smith is anonymous, Mr Campbell is only supposed to be anonymous. He is the subject of at least one full-length book and a television profile. The only thing the two men have in common is a shared passion for Nationwide League football teams.

How, one wonders, could these two men conceivably perform the same role? One is a self-confessed propagandist, the other a career Whitehall information officer. One is a bruiser, a spinner and, if necessary, an assassin. The other is supposedly apolitical. The service which employs Mr Smith requires him to be "objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical ... or liable to misrepresentation as being party political".

The difference between the two men might matter less if we, the press, had not connived with them in pretending they are one and the same person. Both have for a long time sheltered behind the comfortable semi-anonymity of being "a Downing Street spokesman", or an "official source", or "a source close to the prime minister". After Michael Cockerell's programme it is difficult to see how this coyness and circumlocution can possibly continue.

Indeed, after tonight's programme, it is difficult to see why anyone would want the present arrangements to persist. The interaction between Mr Campbell (even on his best behaviour) and Her Majesty's Lobby appears close to what psychotherapists term "an abusive relationship" - one in which the part ners feel trapped in a downward spiral of passive-aggressive behaviour.

A recent bestselling American self-help book on the subject identified helpful ways of identifying the symptoms: "Does your partner seem irritated or angry at you several times a week? Does he deny being angry when he clearly is? Do you frequently feel perplexed and frustrated by his responses, as though you were each speaking a different language?"

Both partners in this increasingly loveless relationship - Mr Campbell and the Lobby - would answer "yes" to all of the above. Yet, as any self-help devotee will tell you, the destructive thing about these abusive relationships is that - though it makes them miserable - neither party can escape.

And, true enough, Mr Cockerell's film ended with forlorn Lobby journalists complaining bitterly that Mr Smith's kindly, caring, objective briefings were no fun. They wanted to get back to the daily ritual of mutual abuse.

There is a serious point behind all this, which is that the word "spin" is to this government what "sleaze" was to the last. Whether it is the press or the government who is chiefly to blame is in a sense beside the point. Something has to be done to untie the knot before Westminster politics and press become terminally polluted by mutual cynicism and disrespect.

It appears that this thought has already dawned on Number 10. The decision to pull Mr Campbell out of day-to-day close combat with the Lobby was Mr Blair's. This week's televised press conference was a White House- inspired device to speak directly to the public without the filter of the Lobby.

But the sterile nature of the present relationship is also appreciated by the more thoughtful members of the press corps. Elinor Goodman, the political editor of Channel 4, gave a speech this week in which she said: "I think it is arguable that political journalists have been a corrosive force over the past 10 years. My own view is that the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media has helped create an age of cynicism in which it's extremely difficult to have a rational debate."

The Guardian was one of three papers to leave the Lobby in 1986 in protest at the way in which systematic unattributable briefings were being misused. That generation of Lobby correspondents was not sympathetic: the Lobby voted 67 to 55 to keep all briefings off the record.

It is ironic that such movement as there has been since to put the briefings on the record has largely come from government. Mr Campbell himself has tiptoed some way to greater openness, with edited versions of the daily briefing on the Downing Street website.

But even he has stepped back from going the whole way. When the Guardian published the first verbatim transcript of a Lobby briefing in March, he dropped us a quiet note saying that he had not intended that all Lobby briefings should now be fully on the record and attributable. At the same time the cost of the Strategic Communications Unit has risen from £77,633 in 1997/8 to £839,440 in the current year.

It is not clear that much would be gained from again boycotting these semi-open Lobby briefings. But in future all Guardian journalists attending them will, as a matter of policy, identify who the briefer is. It is no longer right that readers should be in doubt whether this is Alastair spin or Godric briefing.

More difficult is the whole question of attribution. In politics - as in virtually every other walk of life - people will often speak more honestly if they are allowed to speak anonymously. The use of non-attributed quotes can thus assist the reader towards a truer understanding than if a journalist confined him/herself to quoting the bland banalities that often pass for on-the-record quotes.

One example: a recent article in the Guardian was the subject of a drily critical letter from Lord Wigoder. He drew attention to no fewer than 11 anonymous quotes attributed to such sources as "a Labour business adviser", "a senior Labour figure" and "one wealthy businessman."

I know - because I made inquiries - that virtually all these quotes came from people with direct knowledge of the relevant matter. As an editor, I was satisfied that this was an exceptionally well-informed and accurate piece of reporting. The Guardian reader was, I thought, well-served.

But journalism which is not believed has failed. If many readers felt they had insufficient clue as to whether the alleged "sources" spoke with authority and remained deeply sceptical about the provenance of the quotes, then it is difficult to make a case that the article did serve our readers well.

What, to take another recent example, are we to make of the recent front page splash in a mid-market tabloid: "Power crazed and bonkers" was the bold headline above a picture of Gordon Brown. The story was a brutal attack on the chancellor sourced to "a government colleague".

The article was by the paper's political editor - ironically, one of the journalists who led the Independent out of the Lobby 14 years ago. The attribution was so vague as to be meaningless to any reader. The Observer's famous earlier anonymous attack on Brown - "he has psychological flaws" - was at least sourced to "someone who has an exceedingly good claim to know the mind of the prime minister".

Even this quote would not have got through the editorial process of the New York Times. Its style guide reads: "Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people ... If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor.

"The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source."

These are good rules, though - as those who have worked in both countries admit - they are easier to apply in the monopoly environment of New York broadsheet journalism than in the ruthlessly competitive world of Fleet Street.

If applied here, the curtain would come down on whoever it is whose job it is to drip anonymous poison over the heads of Harriet Harman, Frank Field, Ken Follett, Lord Winston, Clare Short, Ken Livingstone, Stephen Byers, Mo Mowlam, Gordon Brown, David Clark or whomever the victim of the moment is deemed to be.

But it is not absolutely clear that the bringing down of this curtain would inevitably cause greater enlightenment amongst readers. Would the public interest have been served by denying readers the knowledge that the skids were under John Biffen or Francis Pym?

S hould the papers of the day have kept quiet about the increasing friction between Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, simply because no one would go on the record about it? If part of the truth about the present government is that it is genuinely riven by personal bitterness and mistrust, how can it be truthful to ignore the fact?

One of the reasons that some journalists feel locked into their love-hate relationship with Mr Campbell is that they feel he truly knows and understands the day to day thinking of the prime minister. Some reporters are adamant that the interests of the reader are best served by being able to quote him, even if they are obliged to disguise the origin of the quote.

We do not claim great moral superiority in these matters on the Guardian. But I do feel that we could do better in trying to break with some of the worst customs that have become ingrained in political reporting over the past 10 or so years.

In addition to naming the spokesman at official lobbying briefings, we will adopt a stricter code on the use of anonymous pejorative quotes. And we will encourage reporters to be as specific as possible about the source of any anonymous quotation. "One MP", or "a government colleague" is so weak as to be meaningless. "Senior minister" is an advance. "Cabinet minister with direct knowledge of the negotiations" is better still. By now the reader can genuinely evaluate the worth of the remark.

We will codify these guidelines and publish them: doubtless we will break them from time to time. But we will do our best to make a start on the road to more valuable and evaluate-able reporting. It would be good if you - the readers - had some input into the process.

You already use the independent readers' editor and letters columns to make your views known. In that respect, I believe the Guardian is already the most open and honest paper in Britain. But it would be interesting and helpful to hear the general views of readers on how we can best convey the true flavour of British politics as it is lived, breathed and briefed about.

Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Genuinely loved this kind of post. Although I want much more information on like precious subject matter about Spineless anonymity.

    Ballot Box Suppliers | Voting Booths