Sunday, January 29, 2006


Sources are great, aren't they? Especially when they're "police sources". Police sources said Jean-Charles de Menezes may have been found with cocaine. Well, I may have been found with cocaine, but not by a policeman, and not by anyone else - indeed, I may not have been found with it all. Enough semantics. Police sources said Colin Stagg was really guilty after all. Police sources said they knew of a plot to kidnap Leo Blair, but the official police spokesman said there had been no arrests, there would be no further action, and he couldn't comment on it, quite unlike those police sources who had done in extensive and well-timed detail.

Sources are to be protected. One does not disclose one's sources. Even if they are busy propagating insulting nonsense about a man the force shot for no reason anyone can think of, or disposing of an annoying pressure don't name your sources. Fair enough. This traditional journalistic doctrine is based on the idea that if someone - a source - wants to get information in the public domain that would otherwise be concealed, they may want to remain anonymous. This implies that they would face punishment or revenge otherwise.

Nobody can really disagree with this except on purely self-serving grounds. But one feature of modern journalism (played out in the Judith Miller affair) is the prevalence of the non-source, if you will, a person who speaks to the press in confidence in order to diminish the total amount of information in the world, and who usually seeks anonymity in order to avoid responsibility. It's a fair assumption that the copper behind the Menezes/coke smear wasn't at risk of demotion from Sir Ian Blair for doing so, although I suppose you could argue that had their name been published, the ensuing scandal would have ruined their career..which isn't quite the same thing as fearing assassination by the mafia for publishing information they would rather keep secret. Miller, far from conspiring to sneak out secret and accurate information that government would rather have suppressed, snuck out secret and accurate information the government would much rather have published, but could not do so without breaking the law, in order to reduce the effective information available to the public (as well as a ton of semi-secret but inaccurate information the government wanted publishing, but then, every bugger in town did that). How Lewis Libby and that "other," still unidentified official earned absolute confidentiality is hard to explain.

So - should we look at source protection differently? It seems clear, logically and ethically, that the right of a confidential source to confidentiality is based on their motive in leaking the information. It's intolerable that a government PR man can say absolutely any nonsense that comes into their head, so long as it serves their interest and is sufficiently sensational to activate the Reynolds defence of public interest, and then vanish behind a cloud of stink like a skunk.

However, before leaping, it's a good idea to know what your alternative policy is. If you hop to a policy of conditional source protection, it puts you under a very heavy responsibility in making judgements. Certainly, there is a ton of anonymous briefing under source protection that comes from the powers-that-be and is entirely self-interested. Ideally, it should either be ignored or attributed to the speaker. If Civil Servant X, Executive Y or Chief Inspector Z is always popping up with this stuff, you can draw your own conclusions as to its reality content. More likely, were they responsible for their remarks, they would keep their traps shut. Which would at least improve the signal-to-noise ratio.

But what if, on this occasion, Inspector Z really does have a genuine story? Either he will keep his trap shut, in which case we are all the poorer, or he will publish and be damned, which is terrible and will probably succeed in silencing others. One of those times where following a specific principle, whichever it is, will lead to a bad outcome.

On TYR, I occasionally refer to "sources," usually people who get in touch. Whether I use whatever they say is entirely decided on its usefulness. But it is by definition unlinkable, so the key form of corroboration in the blogosphere is useless.

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