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Anonymous sources: it's how politicians lie to us

There is something seriously wrong when politicians can tell the media one thing on the record then say the opposite anonymously.

The New York Times has a new policy on the use of anonymous sources in reporting the news. Announced a week ago, the policy is designed to make it harder for journalists to allow unnamed politicians and officials to deliver stories that too often have proved to be at best skewed and at worst just plain wrong. Among other things, journalists will be obliged to tell senior editors the names of anonymous sources in their stories, so editors can judge whether reporters are being manipulated and even lied to by these shadowy no-name people.

Good on them. Mind you, The New York Times conducted a major review of the paper's use of anonymous sources in 2007, when the then executive editor Bill Keller apologised to readers for his paper's coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. 

Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew Dyson 

In March 2003, Times reporter Judith Miller wrote a series of articles revealing details of Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and his determination to develop a nuclear arsenal. Miller's articles were based on anonymous sources – sources she said were in intelligence, in Congress and in the Pentagon.

It turned out that Miller's sources were one source, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who worked for the then vice-president Dick Cheney and was later charged, convicted and sentenced to jail for 30 months for having perjured himself in an FBI investigation.

Family feud Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.
Family feud Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. 

Clearly the review and subsequent changes at the Times a decade ago didn't do the trick and the issue of anonymous sources has  needed to be revisited. Things didn't change most probably because the use of anonymous sources is an addiction that is difficult to shake and, as with all addictions, it isn't all bad. 

Some  matters of great public interest simply could not be reported without granting anonymity to people prepared to risk their jobs and, in some cases, even their lives to reveal  information that needs to be revealed. But as the Judith Miller case so dramatically illustrated, the use of anonymous sources can be calamitous. It was in large part on the basis of her reporting that The New York Times supported the second Iraq war.

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The use of anonymous sources in Australian journalism, particularly in political reporting, has not led to  dire outcomes that rival the Judith Miller fiasco, but there have been some pretty crook results nevertheless. So much so that it might be time for journalists to have a look at the rules of engagement between reporters and politicians,  where the granting of anonymity is concerned. 

There is an urgent need for this, given that we are at the start of  a long election campaign, and that we have a disgruntled and embittered former prime minister who told us he would not criticise his political assassin, damage his government or brief anonymously against the man who so grievously betrayed him. 

In the lead-up to his first challenge against Julia Gillard in 2011, Kevin Rudd said on the record that he was not ...
In the lead-up to his first challenge against Julia Gillard in 2011, Kevin Rudd said on the record that he was not counting numbers, not plotting anything, had no supporters plotting for him, and that anyone who said otherwise was not telling the truth. Photo: Andrew Meares

There was, of course, another former prime minister who was disgruntled and embittered and who made similar promises which he failed to keep – just as the more recently deposed man has failed to keep his promises. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott have at least this in common. 

It was not only the political class that was damaged by the leadership rivalry between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard,  which reduced Australian politics to a sort of reality show: I'm the prime minister ... get me out of here. Journalism too was damaged because, in essence, the reporting of the Rudd/Gillard rivalry involved an almost blanket use of anonymous sources.

There is something seriously wrong with the rules of engagement.
There is something seriously wrong with the rules of engagement. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

And, because according to the rules of engagement, once a politician is granted anonymity, nothing he or she does or says can render the agreement void, journalists reported stuff they knew to be untrue.

Here is one example of the way journalists were forced to retail untruths.  In the lead-up to  his failed challenge against Gillard in 2011, Rudd repeatedly said, on the record, that he was not counting numbers, not plotting anything, had no supporters plotting for him, and that anyone who said otherwise was not telling the truth.

But virtually every journalist in the press gallery knew this was not entirely true. There is no doubt that Rudd and his supporters were briefing journalists about their plans, about when a challenge might come, about the level of their support. And clearly this planning and plotting had been going on for some time, perhaps as far back as the 2010 election campaign when a series of leaks against Gillard ensured that her government would not win a majority of seats.

There is something seriously wrong with the rules of engagement when politicians can say one thing on the record and then say the opposite anonymously and get away with it. To allow this to stand is to put journalists in a position where they have to report things they know are not true.

The rules of engagement need to be changed. When politicians make statements that contradict what they have told journalists off the record or in background briefings, the granting of anonymity should no longer stand. 

This needs to be made clear to the political class and to audiences that journalists are meant to serve. 

It is in this context that Niki Savva's book The Road to Ruin is important. It is a terrific book, but that's not the point here. The point is that Savva does not rely on anonymous sources for her examination of the relationship between Abbott and Peta Credlin. Her sources are named. They speak for themselves. We know who they are and where they worked and we know  the terms and circumstances of their relationships with Abbott or Credlin. 

We know where they are coming from and can therefore judge the efficacy of what they are saying. This is what makes it wrong to dismiss Savva's book as gossip and innuendo. This is not true. It is an example of terrific political reporting, basically because there are so few anonymous sources. 

It is the sort of reporting we need as we head into those strange and often unreal days of an election campaign, in particular a campaign that will inevitably feel as if it is going to last forever. 

Michael Gawenda was editor and editor-in-chief of The Age from 1997 to 2004 and the inaugural director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

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