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
Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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