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.