National newspaper have refused to retract claims that one of David Cameron’s “closest allies” described Conservative activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.
The Times and Daily Telegraph both had front-page leads quoting the source anonymously on Saturday and the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror also used the quotes.
The comments are reported to have been made to four journalists in the Blue Boar Smokehouse, Westminster, on Wednesday night.
On Saturday, speculation mounted on social media that the source was Conservative Party co-chair Lord Feldman.
The Prime Minister is reported to have offered his backing to Lord Feldman on Saturday amid the rumours.
Then, on Sunday, four national newspapers – The Mail on Sunday, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times and Independent on Sunday – led on the story.
The papers reported that Feldman had denied the “speculation” that it was him and said he was taking legal advice.
The statement said: “I am very disappointed by the behaviour of the journalists involved, who have allowed rumour and innuendo to take hold by not putting these allegations to me before publication.”
After reading Feldman’s statement, Telegraph journalist James Kirkup tweeted: “I stand by my story.”
Despite the rumours, no newspaper has formally named the source of the quote.
Independent on Sunday political editor Jane Merrick, who was not present, wrote yesterday: “Lord Feldman denies it is he who said those words, and the newspapers, who didn’t name him, stand by their story.
“But the incident itself is shrouded in the concept of “off the record”. Off the record is criticised by some because it allows attacks to be made without accountability.
“Yet to most reporters, it is an essential part of freedom of speech – it affords anonymity to sources to expose wrongdoing and question those in power without fear of recrimnination.”
Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher tweeted on Saturday: “There are a host of good reasons why sources are not named. Yelling on Twitter does not equal daily quality journalism”.