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18 October 2013

Time to put a name to the anonymous spokesperson

The "a spokesman said" formulation serves mostly to allow institutions to issue statements that no actual human would make.

By Jonn Elledge

Here’s a quote from an unnamed spokesman for Britain’s much loved Department for Work & Pensions. See if you can guess what they’re commenting on:

“Since 2010 we have considerably improved the Work Capability Assessment process. We are committed to help thousands of people move from benefits and back into work while giving unconditional support to those who are most in need.”

If you guessed that this comes from a story about how successful coalition welfare policies are proving, then sit down, this may come as a shock. The story to which this is the official government response is this one, in the Daily Record. Its headline is: “Mum-of-three was told to find a job by Atos chiefs… Weeks later she died of a brain tumour”.

Now I’m sure that that quote, which is so dull it’d have Tigger dozing off mid-bounce, was an extract from a longer response from officialdom; but I would bet my left kidney that the full version didn’t include any more feeling or content than the edited version used in the report. The spokesman didn’t deny the allegations. They just didn’t even acknowledge them.

The same story features an unnamed Atos spokesperson expressing their sympathies to the family at this difficult time.

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Wherever there’s an institutional balls up, you’ll find an anonymous quote of this sort.  Back in September, the Independent ran a story claiming that South Yorkshire Police, in addition to everything else they did to help out during the Hillsborough disaster, pocketed money found at the scene and paid it into their own bank account. (Only £14, but nonetheless.) This was the same police force, you’ll recall, that accused some fans of robbing from the dead.

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The police spokesman, though, reassures us that the money was banked “in accordance with the policy operating at that time”. “Unclaimed monies should have been placed into the Police Property Act Fund… available for payment towards such charitable purposes as the authority might determine.” And what charitable purposes were they, then? “Financial records from that time do not exist.”

Then there’s this Reuters investigation into community groups hosted on Facebook and Yahoo!, where adoptive parents can advertise kids they don’t want any more, and pass them over to passing strangers. Facebook’s official response? “The Internet is a reflection of society, and people are using it for all kinds of communications and to tackle all sorts of problems, including very complicated issues such as this one.”

Think about that. Facebook was found to be hosting a page that exists entirely to give away unwanted children. When asked why it hadn’t shut it down, its response was “it’s complicated”.

Most of us, when we hear tell of a disaster or a scandal, instinctively slip into a certain register: a combination of outrage, horror and shock, mixed, it being 2013, with just a hint of glee at being able to pass this emotion onto everyone who follows us on Twitter. If you’re the official spokesman a company or government department, though, you can’t do any of that. Your job is to issue a response that admits no responsibility, acknowledges no mistakes. You are to say, as near as possible, nothing.

The quotes that result have a number of things in common. They don’t acknowledge any possibility of wrong doing. They’re likely taken from a written statement (seriously, read them out loud and tell me you don’t sound like Siri). And they’re utterly hollow: free of emotion but, wherever possible, free of facts, too. Lastly, they are all of them, every one, anonymous. They’re not the voice of a human being, but the voice of an institution. And that voice is the low drone of a man who thinks that if he bores you long enough, you’ll go away and leave him alone.

All of which makes me wonder: why do we let them get away with this? These statements add so little information they might as well not be there at all. They’re included in stories purely so a journalist can show that they’ve covered their back.

So here’s a thought. The “a spokesman said” formulation serves mostly to allow institutions to issue statements that no actual human would make. So let’s stop using it. Let’s start naming those spokespeople.

It’s one thing to write something saying a scandal was in line with official policy. It’s quite another to put your name to it, so that it can be read by potential employers and spouses and pop up in that Google alert your mother set up for you. Facebook the company might be happy to announce that clamping down on something horrible is just too hard. But I’d be willing to bet relatively few Facebook employees are – or at least, are unwilling to say so out loud.

And if those employees are comfortable with making those statements, then why would they need the privilege of anonymity? The American press, for one, is less squeamish about naming spokespeople then we are. “When the flack is being a jerk, throw the fucker’s name in there,” a friend in DC tells me. “They hate it, but it’s hard for them to complain. They’re a spokesperson.”

Revoking the privilege of official anonymity isn’t going to stop scandals, of course. It won’t even stop people defending the indefensible (there are those who’ve made entire careers out of this). But it would make it that bit harder for the average corporate PR to churn out a load of anodyne nonsense about how sad their organisation is to have killed all those people. It might force them to actually say something.

And even if it doesn’t, at least they might ask for some danger money before taking the job.