Behold the ridiculousness of this existence


For some months now, the Prime Minister’s Office has been conducting periodic briefings for reporters—usually bureau chiefs, but generally one representative from each of the major media outlets. John, Paul and I have regularly attended (except when we don’t get the note). The topics discussed typically range from the Prime Minister’s itinerary to upcoming government action to the PMO’s spin on whatever happens to be making news at the moment.

There is only one rule at these briefings: the government official conducting the briefing must not be identified by name.

Everyone in the room agrees to this. And, in the myriad reports that follow, any information gleaned subsequently cited to a “senior government source” or some such.

This is now widely accepted practice. But, er, why?

In the United States, the White House and State Department conduct daily briefings. The discussions are conducted on the record, cameras record the proceedings and the transcripts are posted online. The PMO in Britain holds two briefings each day and posts summaries of each. (For that matter, Gordon Brown’s office posts video from Prime Minister’s Questions, transcripts from press conferences and online chats with some of his ministers.)

Though I’m unclear on the exact specifics, it would seem that both the Republican and Democratic campaigns held regular, on-the-record conference calls with reporters during the recently completed U.S. election.

Here in Ottawa though—perhaps overwhelmed by the novelty of regular briefings from someone associated with the Prime Minister—we’ve agreed to this phony cloak of anonymity whereby every reporter in the capital knows who said what, but you must remain unaware.

For the sake of comparison, the New York Times policy on anonymous source is, essentially, “We resist granting anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.”

Earlier this year, the Times public editor summarized Times standards as follows: “The policy requires that at least one editor know the identity of every source. Anonymous sources cannot be used when on-the-record sources are readily available. They must have direct knowledge of the information they are imparting; they cannot use the cloak of anonymity for personal or partisan attack; they cannot be used for trivial comment or to make an unremarkable comment seem more important than it is.”

Two years after he took over the paper, Bill Keller laid out a detailed approach to anonymous sources in a Times memo. Including in that was this: “Probably the single greatest purveyor of anonymous information is the U.S. Government (which can also be the loudest complainer about anonymous reporting.) We will continue to push, as the Washington Bureau has recently been doing, to put more official briefings on the record. It is patently silly for a Government spokesman, whose job is to articulate official policy, to brief a room full of reporters anonymously. At the same time, at least in the case of official briefings the reader knows who is ultimately accountable for this information – the Administration that authorized the briefing. I agree with the committee that we have little to gain by unilaterally walking out of off-the-record briefings, but we can set the bar higher for whether such briefings are newsworthy.”

(Why am I only citing Times policy in this regard? Because even if you don’t agree it’s the best newspaper in the world, you must acknowledge that it takes these things terribly seriously.)

A few points of emphasis.

-Anonymous sources are only to be used as a last resort.
-They cannot used for partisan attack.
-It is “patently silly” for government officials to demand briefings be conducted anonymously.

In the case of the briefings in question here, they have been used to launch partisan attacks (see here and here). And while the Times might gain nothing from unilaterally walking away—at the risk of ceding an advantage to its competition—Ottawa is vaguely blessed of a vaguely united front via the official press gallery.

None of which is to encourage another round of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I between the gallery and the PMO. Though in this case the press might reasonably claim to be acting in the public’s interest.


Behold the ridiculousness of this existence

  1. this is a great post. and i seriously hope the gallery does something about this. what are the odds?

  2. Re:
    “-Anonymous sources are only to be used as a last resort.
    -They cannot used for partisan attack.”

    One of the most blatant and recent examples of this approach being ignored by the Canadian media was some of the CTV coverage of the last national election campaign. I think it is safe to say that Bob Fife and Jane Taber aren’t too keen on following this Times-inspired policy.

    And it would certainly be refreshing if the various Parliamentary bureaus put their collective feet down to stop this ridiculous situation created by the PMO. Since the PM has reinvented himself as the new warm and fuzzy Stephen Harper full of non-partisan love and harmony, I’m sure he won’t mind being more transparent and open to the national media. Right? Let us know how that goes. I will be most definitely (and alas, cynically) not holding my breath.

  3. The Brits used to use this all the time, no? The “lobby system.” There are some good lines in Yes Prime Minister: I remember Hacker saying, “Typical lobby correpondent. If he were the sole entrant in an intelligence contest, he’d come third.”

  4. It’s also hugely unfair to freelancers, who don’t have bureau chiefs — or even bureaus — and as such miss out on the off chance that something of actual news value is announced. Like, for example, the date of the return of Parliament, which, as far as I know, was never officially confirmed by PMO after it was announced by the Senior Government Source during a recent background briefing.

  5. Why are you people (journalists) always whining about this? Why aren’t you doing something about it? You afraid of Harper?

  6. “Since the PM has reinvented himself as the new warm and fuzzy Stephen Harper full of non-partisan love and harmony, I’m sure he won’t mind being more transparent and open to the national media.”

    Some very minor research would indicate … NO PATENT PENDING … which would further indicate, on a tight path, switchbacks are probable.

  7. unless you don’t want them to tell you anything at all until it’s a done deal

  8. I agree more transparency would be nice from our PMO. If reporters have a problem with the lack of it, why don’t you do something about it. Like disregard the rules and see what happens. What is the weekly circulation of Macleans and is the PMO really going to stop talking to you guys because you identified Teneycke/Sparrow(???). It seems to me our reporters care more about being in the loop than publishing scoops, which is a shame.

    And holding up NY Times as some sort of standard is laughable. They have got all these rules about anon sources but they get pushed aside when NY Times reporters have a chance to publish a hit piece on Repubs.

  9. It’s unforgivable that official sources with an obvious interest are given free shots at someone else. That’s just malpractice by the reporters who submit the stories.

    You mean to tell me in all these briefings no reporter has broken ranks? No one has said: “You don’t actually expect us to use this as information, do you?”

    It’s not just a problem with the government’s behaviour, the compliance with these absurd rules is a symptom of a wider problem with Canadian news organizations which is that they have allowed themselves to become completely dependent on government sources.

  10. Cause ” Canadian cons are ” farrrrrrrrrr to the left of American Democrats “. They in fact applied for an oil company seat at the Kremlin as GW eyed Putin and likes his soul ?

  11. Press Gallery rolls over, gets tummy scratched.

  12. Someone should sneak a video camera in.

    Video a PMO official giving an official briefing to reporters on condition of anonymity, and then post the video on YouTube with the official (I presume Teneycke or Sparrow) digitized out, and with an altered voice.

    I think people would love to see a government official giving an official briefing to a room full of reporters while simultaneously insisting on anonymity. The sheer madness of gathering together a room full of reporters for a briefing and yet insisting that they not tell anyone who gave the briefing is laughable, but would be particularly so if we had a video of a whole room full of people getting the briefing that they’re not allowed to source.

    Also, why not start explicitly referring to the madness of this practice in print. Point out that the information comes from a briefing given by an official to a room full of bureau chiefs, but that despite briefing a room full of reporters on topic X, the government insists that we not tell you just WHO told a room full of reporters X.

    You could even write a novel. Kafka certainly had success with these kind of plots.

  13. I don’t even know why journalists continue to bother with official spokespeople….do they really ever tell us anything meaningful or provide us with new information? It’s obvious they’re communicating what they are prepared to release to the public, one way or the other…through official channels or through leaks. No one ever seems to go back and revisit what they’ve said to monitor consistency or to expose, in the light of new evidence, what might have been bald-faced lying at the time.

    Not to accuse any of the nice people here at Macleans, but I can’t help feeling that paying homage to official sources is a function of careerists wanting to bask in the reflected glory of important people.

  14. Video a PMO official giving an official briefing to reporters on condition of anonymity, and then post the video on YouTube…

    Oh, the PMO would find out who did that and that person will never be invited again. It’s also likely a violation of the reporter’s employment contract, which could result in firing.

    When you agree to something, you have to abide by it.

  15. Beyond commentary, there’re two kinds of media that politicians get: paid and earned.

    Paid media is just that — they buy ad space, TV time, pay for direct mail, etc. Earned media occurs when something newsworthy happens and the press shows up to cover it — such as with a press conference or policy announcement. The only times anonymity is warranted is when the person is giving information contrary to the orders of their party (to let the public know what the party wants kept secret) and is therefore subject to retaliation, or if the source is a public servant or participant in a court action and has reason to believe they will be the subject of retaliation if their identity becomes known.

    You in the Ottawa press corps and your editors can fashion whatever policy statements you like — but the fundamental question with anonymity should be: Did they earn it?

    During the recent campaign, I wrote emails and letters to the editors of the Globe & Mail, National Post, CBC and CTV news divisions asking each for their organization’s policies regarding the use of unattributed, confidential and anonymous sources.

    Not one of them replied. Their silence speaks volumes.

    Yes, Taber and Fife are serial offenders, but they are not alone. Perhaps if we had some foreign press ownership in Canada, we could shake up things a bit. So long as we have only five or six sources of news in our country, each of them up to their hips in conflicts of interest with the subjects they cover, expect more of this third-rate crap.

  16. The sad truth is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish among all the bottom feeders around Ottawa. Party insiders, anonymous PMO/PCO sources, talking heads on TV, journalists – all have implicityly subscribed to the same very low ethical standard, look the same and talk the same.

    One indicator – media people are typically seen on the social pages photos in their latest formal wear with politicos of all stripes – speaks volumes to the deals that have been cut – implicitly or explicitly. One wonders how, for example, Don Martin, has evolved/devolved from an ethical principled journalist in Alberta to one of the gang out here. I imagine there was no huge demand for black tie in Edmonton, right Don?

  17. It is not as bad as Aaron says thought it certainly is far from perfect. It is true that these briefings are carried on under the agreement that we will only source “govt officials”. But at every one of these briefings, PMO officials remind us that they are available immediately after the briefing to make “on the record” comments about the subject at hand. I take advantage of this offer after every meeting and, as a result, attribute my sources to a named PMO spokesperson in my reporting on whatever subject is at hand. I must say, I do find it a bit surprising that my gallery colleagues do not take advantage of this opportunity and, instead, prefer to continue quoting ‘unnamed officials”.

  18. The use of extensive use of unnamed sources is not the most flattering feature of journalism in Canada. However, this is not new or unique to this government, and has very little, if anything at all, to do with briefings held by our office.

    Macleans – or any other Canadian media outlet for that matter – would be virtually empty, if they were to remove stories quoting an unnamed source, or written on the basis of information provided on background.

    Comparisons to the US approach are out of context. Our executive branch is held accountable by an elected opposition in Question Period, not by the media in a daily briefing. The media have an important role in our system, but it is not the same as in the US.

    The purpose of keeping briefings off-the-record is to allow for a more informal exchange of information with the gallery. Often this information is technical and relates to scheduling of events. This is done to assist media in planning where they will need to send satellite trucks, how many reporters should be on-call over a weekend, etc.

    As David correctly points out, the opportunity to ask “on-the-record” questions does exist after briefings have concluded. In many cases, however, it is more appropriate for journalists to contact the Minister responsible for “on-the-record” comment. Having PMO answer all questions may be easier for the gallery, but it is not really consistent with our system of government.

    As for Macleans participation in future briefings… I have been assured by a “senior Macleans official” that they will continue to attend.

    Kory Teneycke
    Director of Communication
    Office of the Prime Minister

  19. Is it unfair to point out the irony of the Prime Minister’s director of communication going on the record to defend his office’s use of off-the-record briefings while also lamenting the use of anonymous sources in Canadian journalism?

    To be clear, my argument is not so much that this practice is evil as much as it is silly.

    There is probably also a discussion to be had about what the use of unnecessary anonymity in sourcing is doing for journalism’s general credibility, but I’ll leave that for more interested parties.

  20. Is the PMO now located in Harper’s mother’s basement? And does the office dress code insist on pajamas?

    Honestly, the lack of professionalism of that crew is astonishing.

  21. Ti-Guy, I believe it was explained during the campaign that Our Leader’s mother was now living with him …. while she perused her rapidly shrinking portfolio and kept watch for “buy” opportunities.

  22. Kory Teneycke (Director of Communication) writies:

    “Comparisons to the US approach are out of context. Our executive branch is held accountable by an elected opposition in Question Period…”

    KT you are glossing over your comparison with the US systems you fail to acknowledge at least two relevant points

    1) in both systems, the citizenry is sovereign. notwithstanding differences in the structuring of their representation, ultimately accountably of the executive in both systems flows to the people.

    2) in both systems, transparency is essential to an informed citizenry who are effectively able to select representatives and make an assessment of the executive.

    Given the point of journalism is to inform citizens, how does the statement above respect points 1&2 (should I be reading that statement as informing citizens with on the record briefings citizenry isn’t that important because that opposition is more instrumental in the accountability process? Because that is the sense I am getting from that statement.)

    How do off the record briefings aid citizens in making choices about their government? (I think Aaron is onto something re legitimacy; I think it also offer a modicum of deniability by making the information not directly attributable to “the PM’s spokesperson”).

    After reading David Aiken’s comments, I am inclined to think that Aaron Wherry is correct, this is just a matter of silliness. PMO’s position seemingly being we will provide a bunch of info anonymously, then we will talk about it all on the record. Nothing in KT’s post suggested any reason the breifing had to be off the record. (ie informal, scheduling and technical information, last I checked, can all be done on the record) How often is the briefer and then the on the record discussant the same person David?

    Nonetheless, even if this is mostly about silliness, it still seems to me that citizens would be better served by more on-the-record briefings, where they can then attribute information and positions to the government of the day.

    (And just to be clear, I think journos have a role to play here, by not allowing PMO or whomever else to play the game. DA’s is one approach, and not a bad one. Though it seems to me to facilitate the continuance of the practice as opposed to strategies designed to force the end of this practice).

  23. What is absurd, in my oppinion, is the lengths to which Mr. Wherry is going to rationalize his complaint. It seems very clear to me. The PMO sends someone, anyone, from their staff to read off a list of information and or updates. This person has had no part in the background of this material and therefore shouldn’t be quoted as the “source” when they are nothing more than a reporter (per se) themselves.

    As Mr. Akin has pointed out, further supported by Mr. Teneycke, officials in the PMO are available after the briefing for “on-the-record” discussions of the material presented, but if the journalists choose not to avail themselves of that opportunity because they’re in a hurry to get somewhere else, that’s their problem. Also, Mr. Teneycke quite rightly points out that further on-the-record discussions should come from the appropriate Minister or their office, not the PMO. I would also surmise that much of the detail is left out of the “general briefing” since not every shred of information can be hashed over during the briefing. Hence, the availability of PMO staff after the announcements.

    Contrary to the position that the PMO isn’t being “transparent” or “accountable” to the citizens through the media, I will argue that the PMO is pursuing transparency and accountability by decentralizing the reporting away from the PMO and asking reporters to go directly to the “source” of the information; that being the office of the Minister involved, or the Minister themselves. Further, I would argue that the mechanisms and availabilities are in place for the kind of transparency and accountability that journalists such as Mr. Wherry would like to see, but many simply aren’t willing to do the legwork necessary to obtain that information, preferring instead that all the necessary information should come from the same trough; that being the PMO.

  24. Why would any credible journalist agree to such a charade?

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