When Brooke met Brooker

I’m on the most recent episode of Charlie Brooker’s wonderfully acerbic Newswipe. Readers of my twitterfeed (@newsbrooke) may know that I’m a big fan of Brooker’s style of caustic and insightful humour so it was a real pleasure to be interviewed for the second series of his show about the news.

You can watch the entire episode on the BBC’s rubbishy iplayer for a limited time (I appear 15 minutes in) or in perpetuity on YouTube (minute 5). I’m talking here about the way journalists grant public officials anonymity for no good reason. By the very definition of their role, official spokespeople have absolutely no reason to be anonymous yet one of the more dubious practices of the British press is the way reporters collude with officials by granting anonymity.

Sources should be granted anonymity only in very limited circumstances where naming may cause specific harm (such as a whistleblower who could lose his job). There is no reason a Home Office or police force spokesman, for example, should be granted anonymity, yet I’ve had many arguments with these people who insist on it as their ‘right’.

The reason these people insist on anonymity is simply to exercise power without accountability. Anonymity = deniability.

I believe it is a fundamental role of the journalist to push officials to stand behind what they say. If these officials don’t agree, then don’t print their statements or give them air time. It really is that simple. If journalists stuck together on just this one point they could overnight force a change in the culture of parliament, the civil service and many public services.


6 Responses to “When Brooke met Brooker”

  1. Josef says:

    Heather, great work. Hope you are a Newswipe Regular, Josef.

  2. Peter Mac says:

    All very interesting, but completely lacking in perspective. I realise you are now a respected ‘talking head’, but your argument against the British press was weak and one-sided. I will not waste time defending them, they are on the whole a worthless bunch. But really, the American press is sooo much better? What nonsense.

    Two words: Woodward and Bernstein. They fetishised the use of anonymous sources and, like every other area, we have quickly followed the American lead. Watch American news or read one of their newspapers. The Internet lets us do this! They remain full of “a high level source”, “a source familiar with events” or “senior White House official”.

    Which takes us neatly to Judith Miller and the New York Times. She sold America a crock of you know what. Her sources were, er, high level and unnamed. Well, at least until they later became public. A direct line from the White House. Who would have thunk it? But then the US media would never fall for that trick would it? That bastion of quality reporting that let the world slide to the brink of disaster on so many fronts with Mr Bush at the wheel.

    A smart 15 year old could do a take-down of the hypocrisy of the Sun, Star or Daily Mail. Or the New York Times for that matter. You have to work a little harder than Brooker’s programme. But then that calls for glib and black and white argument doesn’t it? Why squander your good reputation doing something like this?

    I would hope given your valuable push for freedom of speech and attacks on secrecy that these comments will be allowed to start a debate.

  3. heather says:

    There are instances were anonymity of sources is necessary and indeed ethical but the circumstances should be confined to those instances where the source would be be harmed in some way if their identity was made known(such as a whistleblower or insider who would face retribution). The over-riding concern must be what is in the public interest. If a story about serious corruption or wrongdoing can only be told using a source who refuses to be named then there may be justification for granting anonymity. But any journalist must think long and hard about it.

    There’s absolutely no reason for the accepted convention among British journalists to agree to anonymise press officers and PR flunkies.

  4. Peter Mac says:

    I agree with you largely. But the problem with this is defining harm.

    Is harm just the threat of physical violence? Losing your job? Your life becoming a feeding frenzy for ludicrous (frequently salacious) tabloid interest? Losing your pension as you approach retirement? Or even political/electoral suicide?

    More nuance is clearly required. And what is ‘public interest’? Judges don’t know, journalists don’t know, heck even the public would be hard pressed to tell you. It’s the old debate: ‘what is the public interested in’ v ‘what is in the public interest’. Can we or should we ever conflate them?

    [“There’s absolutely no reason for the accepted convention among British journalists to agree to anonymise press officers and PR flunkies.”]

    Again, i agree. But it must follow that there is also no reason for American journalists to agree to anonymise press officers and PR flunkies. It’s not even a stretch to find them doing this every day on ‘respectable’ news outlets, so it’s unfair to attack the unfortunates working for British papers.

    Egregious example no 1: The Wall Street Journal happily plugged Apple’s then to be announced gadget based on anonymous sources. If these “people briefed with the company” and “people briefed on the matter” were not Apple PR flunkies then i am a walnut whip.

    I can offer more. But this is a blog reply, not an essay!

    See Here:
    Apple to Ship Tablet…(Jan 5)

  5. Atreides says:

    “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”
    Joseph Goebbels

  6. Angus says:

    I just saw the newswipe episode and found myself in the very sad position of agreeing with everything you said. I don’t particularly care about how things are done anywhere else but to have a system where any petty story can be floated on the basis of a journalist’s whim with some flimsy informed source backing it up is shameful. I feel like getting ready to fight the fight.

Leave a Reply