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.