Why Leveson is right to allow anonymous witnesses

Sometimes, anonymity is necessary in the public interest. That does not justify the tabloid's prurie

The decision to allow anonymous sources to contribute to the Leveson inquiry could be seen as a victory -- or a bit of a bear trap.

It's deliciously hypocritical of the Daily Mail to use the "Yuman Rites* Act" it has so often pilloried in the past to attempt to stop others from using the kind of anonymous sources it wouldn't think twice about using.

I remember when "friends" of the newsreader Carol Barnes happily stuck the boot into her when she was about to die, as reported by the Mail, or when a "friend" of missing woman Claudia Lawrence decided to tell all to the Mail (rather than the police) about the alleged nature of her acquaintance's private life (and more particularly sex life).

It's not just the Mail, of course, and it would be wrong to portray this use of anonymous "friends" to just those titles, when there are many others who use this kind of tactic all the time. The veneer of public interest in a dying (or dead) celebrity, or the sex life of a missing person, is very thin indeed, although the authors of these pieces attempt to justify why we're being told about these secrets when the subject doesn't have the ability to respond to them.

But we all know what it's really about: it's about feeding the readers' morbid or prurient curiosity and hoping to get or retain readers off the back of it. That's all there is to it. No-one has ever really benefited from finding any of this information out. Have people benefited financially from revealing it? That is a mystery. Perhaps people do it out of the goodness of their hearts because they really want the wider public to know.

Anonymous sources do have their place in journalism. Without them, whistleblowers would not be able to tell their side of events and bring items of genuine public interest to the fore. It's in most workers' contracts, private or public, that if you tell the media what's going on in your workplace, you can be kicked out -- and that means a lot can be concealed.

I think there's a justification for paying sources as well, if what they reveal could not be brought into the public arena in any other way. After all, it makes sense to compensate some people who have an awful lot to lose if it is found out that they are behind a particular story.

There's a time and a place when these things are right, and necessary -- but also a time and a place when they're impossible to justify. When people's lives get wrecked, when untruths are told and the victim is unable to respond because they're missing or dead, when there's no reason for publishing other than "because we can". Is that the price we must pay for those occasions when anonymity provides a genuine scoop for a story of real public interest?

There's also a time when sources are as dodgy as hell, and it doesn't do any particular harm -- for example, when an "onlooker" comments on a story for a red-top with a quote so pitch-perfect that you could be forgiven for thinking it had been written by the journalist who put the story together and merely attributed to the eyewitness. If that doesn't really do any damage, is it the worst crime in the world, especially when readers are aware of the likelihood of the spectacularly articulate "onlooker" existing?

There could be a concern that an inquiry which is investigating, among other things, the use of anonymous or paid sources, might open itself to accusations of hypocrisy by using, er, anonymous sources. But I don't think that's such a problem, and I'm glad that we will be hearing from anonymous contributors about the culture of what goes on in newsrooms up and down the country. It's worth taking that evidence with the same amount of cynicism we might usually reserve for anonymous sources in newspapers -- which in my case is quite a lot.

* The silly phonetic spelling of such subjects as "Yuman Rites" and "Elf 'n' Safety" is a trope often used by the Mail's own star columnist, Richard Littlejohn, in order to emphasise the ribtickling nature of such subjects. Perhaps my favourite example of Littlejohnian phonetic silliness is when he decided that the inherent let-wing bias of the BBC would see Israelis thought of as "Izza-ra-ay-lees". You know, Izza-ra-ay-lees. The pronunciation that no-one has ever used, ever.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy