Let’s take a holiday in East Berlin… @jonaholmesMW and off-the-record sources #auspol #mediawatch

It’s a widely held view that something is wrong with journalism in Australia.  For nearly a year — it seems — supporters of former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, were white-anting Prime Minister Gillard. Supporters were providing comments to journalists off the record, and papers were publishing the comments verbatim.  ‘An ALP insider says…’ ‘A Rudd supporter says…’ ‘A senior ALP figure says…’

This has divided part of the audience: LNP-friendly readers saw this as instability within the ALP; ALP-friendly readers saw this as intolerable right wing bias in the newspapers.

On 27 February, ABC’s MediaWatch covered the controversy.  Was it all media beat-up?  Was this a media-induced leadership spill?  Should journalists protect their sources?

It was Jonathon Holmes’ view that:

I think that once a reporter has promised confidentiality to a source, he or she is stuck with it, except in the most unusual cases.

And a reporter who refuses to base stories on off-the-record chats won’t last long in the press gallery hothouse. Any change to the culture will have to come from their editors. [Source]

I find Holmes frustrating as a presenter.  Where Marr was exceptional in his insight and ability to argue his view, Holmes regularly relies on his bellyfeel take on an issue.  There’s nothing insightful or philosophical about his arguments.  Worse, his presentation of legal issues in media coverage is routinely abysmal.  Regarding a case where a court ordered that a newspaper reveal its source to a woman who had been defamed, Holmes said:

Why? Well, it’s a long, complex judgment, and I’m no lawyer. But some of Her Honour’s reasoning strikes me as concerning. […]

It seems to me a wonderfully circular argument. The right to protect their sources is designed to make it easier for journalists to discover matters of public interest; the qualified privilege defence is designed to make publication of those matters more possible; but if journalists make use of the second, they risk losing the first.  […]

What they should do is honour their commitment to protect their sources’ identities – if necessary, by defying the courts. [Source]

It was a bizarre train of reasoning leading to the outlandish outcome: defy the courts!  Journalists really do think that they’re a law unto themselves.

But both stories are linked by this idea of the journalist’s right to protect their source.  In the latter case, they should be protected even if it means denying justice to another party.  In the former, even if that means the public is unable to make an informed decision about politicians.

The journalists’ rhetoric is usually wound up in discussions about democracy and the importance of an informed electorate.  Why, then, is Holmes advocating a policy which actively strikes at both?

Holmes goes one step further: the public should not criticise the media because the public doesn’t know the full story (only the journalists do).  On Twitter, he chastised a critic:

can’t discuss on Twitter but you are merely speculating. You have less actual knowledge than the reporters you condemn. [Source]

I suggested that might be the problem.  If reporters have all this information, why aren’t they sharing it with us?  Further, why should we trust journalists to report accurately and fairly?  MediaWatch is full of stories where journalists distorted and misrepresented in order to grab an exclusive story.

When I asked Holmes if the public ought to be able to verify stories, he responded:

Only solution is not to base stories on off record sources. Then we’d all know even less, seems to me. [Sources]

The problem here is that Holmes has a blunt view of what it means to base a story on an off-the-record source.  What he’s meaning here is: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t; the Press should be able to run their unverifiable comments unchallenged.’

But a more nuanced (and sensible) view is possible: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t and tips off the journalist about how to find more information.’

This isn’t an uncommon way to leak.  Every day, government agencies pour out hundreds of reports, papers, books, pamphlets, &c., &c., &c.  You would be shocked to know how much is revealed in them.  It’s one of the reasons why some governments (cough, States, cough) dilute hideous news in pages and pages of pedestrian dullness.

See also the spookily accurate Freedom of Information requests…

In those situations, protection of source is still important but there’s no need to put blind trust in the journalist to report accurately and fairly the source we’re not allowed to know.

The difference between my kind of off-the-record source and Holmes’ is that my version requires some work on the behalf of journalists.  It’s not all private catchups with senior journalists in back rooms, drinking scotch and then phoning in the story.

A lot of my friends get very uptight about the media.  They perceive it as being biased against whatever political position they hold.  What they forget is that very few people trust the media.  Holmes’ argument that we would ‘know even less’ if journalists couldn’t run ‘trust me when I tell you things you can’t verify’ stories falls into the same trap: the public already does not trust the media, so unverifiable off-the-record stories does not help the public to know things.

The problem is lazy journalists who don’t understand their audience.  Short and simple.

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