'Background', 'guidance', 'off record': the rules of engagement for quotes

Wouldn’t journalism be simple if we just spoke to people and put what they said in the paper?

What was it like before we began negotiating “unattributable” quotes, “off the record” and “background” briefings, Chatham House and Lobby rules?

These terms of engagement are meant to encourage people to speak. The reason for using them is to get more information into the public domain. But before agreeing any kind of deal that takes us away from the “on the record” basis where journalism should start, we should always ask who benefits from it.

First, we had better define the terms, for they are often misunderstood, not least by the journalists who use them. “Off the record” is meant to mean just that – whatever is said is not to appear in print. But both journalists and the people they speak to often use it when what they really mean is “unattributable” – that is, stuff to be quoted directly or indirectly, but not attached to any name.

“Background” – often given that avuncular name “guidance” – operates in similar territory, conveying information that informs a story but should not be too specifically sourced.

The “Chatham House Rule”, created in 1927 at the London conference centre, is now frequently invoked at the start of lunch meetings with journalists: “… participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

As for the Lobby rules, you will have to ask a parliamentary reporter if you want a full version, but in essence they mean that sources are not named.

Now all of these have their place, for there are limits to the information you can extract by introducing yourself as a reporter and whipping out a notebook. The most important information often comes from people who cannot be identified as its source. But there is a danger that we allow people to evade their responsibilites by allowing them to speak on a background basis when they should be publicly identified with the case they are making.

How many times have you had a conversation with a corporate spin man or woman that starts “It’s not something we would wish to comment on”, moves on to “it might be helpful to you if I could talk on a background basis…” and culminates in a “strictly off the record, the people making these allegations are mad”?

And how many times have you broken in and said “Stop. On the record or not at all”?

Probably not enough, for there is something seductive about being invited to share information. It’s that you-and-I-understandeach- other-let-us-be-frank-with-each-other moment that makes spin work. But what is the point of journalists having secrets they cannot share with their readers?

Why, in Lobby reporting, do we allow politicians to trash each other without putting their name to the claims they make? Why do we allow those at the centre of a story to put their case via the distancing voice of “friends”?

It was naïve of me, of course, but I still remember my surprise as a young reporter at The Sunday Times 24 years ago, when I learned how far the Lobby principle ran.

A colleague’s interview with the Tory minister Cecil Parkinson, facing political ruin when it was revealed his mistress was expecting a baby, appeared through the medium of “friends”.

A more sophisticated colleague scoffed at me: “The readers know what is going on.” Well, if the readers really know what is going on, why hide behind such forms of words?

Perhaps I am being simple. Perhaps if Cecil Parkinson hadn’t been allowed to hide behind “friends” then he wouldn’t have spoken at all.

But presumably he spoke because he wanted to get his side of the story into the public domain, so why let him distance himself?

These are tricky areas, for there is a balance of power in all attempts to get people to speak.

Sometimes we want them or their information more than they want us to have it, which is why we are prepared to negotiate terms.

But frequently, though they might not wish to talk, there are questions they ought to answer. That’s when we have to stand firm, and make it clear that they are on the record.

Kim Fletcher is chairman of the National Council for the Training of Journalists and author of The Journalist’s Handbook (Macmillan)

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