We all need friends, especially for stories with no real quotes

The use of the word "friends" when describing unnamed informants is a useful journalistic trick. The word may or may not justify being taken literally.

Sometimes when derogatory information is laid at the door of "friends", it makes the reader wonder what sort of friends they are to indulge in such a betrayal – "Rick has always been a selfish drunken bastard", said a friend yesterday – and to wonder also what the sworn enemies of the person concerned must be like.

Maybe the sensitive information or opinion really does come from friends. But sometimes it comes from one source who is not a friend: it simply sounds more authoritative to quote a friend rather than, perhaps more truthfully, an "enemy".

From time to time, the information comes from the person himself who, for his own reasons, cannot be seen to be speaking to journalists about the matter in hand, but wants to get his views of a situation or person into the record.

And sometimes it may be a more chatty way of dramatising facts that might be thought dull if simply recounted abstractly: a quote, even from an un-named and perhaps composite or fictitious "friend", can have more life than a baldly-reported fact. These may be justifiable tricks, especially if the object is to prevent the identification of a source.

One undoubted fact remains. The reader has no possible means of knowing for sure whether the quote attributed to a friend really comes from a friend or merely from someone who once saw the person in a pub and is exaggerating the connection to boost his own ego; or whether the quote is entirely made up from facts the reporter knows about the person featured, and he has elected to put them into the mouth of an unnamed informant to give them an air of veracity and liveliness.

In many cases, it is the subject of the remarks himself who is doing the talking. Politicians in particular have been known to give briefings to journalists on the basis that they themselves must be quoted as refusing to comment. Here it is the politician who is primarily responsible for the trickery. The journalist takes what the politician says and attributes it to an unnamed "friend" or "friends".

This is the sort of thing that results: "The Foreign Secretary will resign unless his official residence is swiftly renovated, friends said last night.

"They warned that the minister is so disenchanted with the repeated postponements that he regards it as a personal affront by the Prime Minister, and one that makes it difficult or impossible to do his job of entertaining foreign dignitaries.

"One friend said last night: ‘He has had it up to here with this issue, he is absolutely disenchanted, and he now considers that the threat of resignation is the only answer left open to him.'"

It would hardly come as a surprise to any journalist to hear that this story was based on a verbal briefing with the Foreign Secretary himself that went like this: "This is off the record. I will resign unless my official home is swiftly renovated. I am so disenchanted with the repeated postponements that I regard it as a personal affront by the Prime Minister, and one that makes it difficult or impossible for me to do my job of entertaining foreign dignitaries. I have had it up to here with this issue and I now consider that the threat of resignation is the only answer left open to me. But all that is off the record."

The journalist in this case has made only one give-away mistake: he has used the word "disenchanted" to describe the Foreign Secretary's mood, ostensibly as described by friends. Disenchanted is an unusual word in this context, and might well be characteristic of the Foreign Secretary himself; it is certainly sufficiently characteristic to betray the fact that it was the Foreign Secretary himself who was doing the talking.

The shrewd journalist will get around the problem of avoiding betraying the identity of the informant by "pasteurising" any quotes from friends in such a way that distinctive give-away words are not used.

This is part of the reason why so many friends speak in such a slick, characterless and rather "machined" way.

here have been publications in the past that have refused to use quotes, from friends or others, unless specifically attributed.

For the most part, such a high moral stance is long departed and it was perhaps always too high-minded for the real world. Sometimes people say things which cast genuine light on a situation or issue, but which they are not eager to have attributed to them. But for the trick, the information or views might not reach the public. Journalists' tricks can sometimes work for the public good.

The public will have to decide for itself in every instance whether or not a trick is being played on it through the introduction of quoted friends, and whether the trick matters.

Is it likely that a friend of the person concerned would have such a conversation with the reporter concerned? "A friend of a distinguished politician told Tit and Bum Magazine yesterday it was ridiculous to suggest that he had washed his feet in the sink of a Brussels hotel…" Is it likely?

Do the rhythms of the sentences quoted have a genuine ring, or do the words sound as if they could not have been spoken except by an electronic machine? "A friend said yesterday: ‘The circumstances do not vouchsafe much promise for a bilateral solution'."

Does the quote include things that no one except the brain-damaged would utter? As in this case: "A friend said yesterday: ‘My wife, 45-year-old Ellen, has long been a friend of the red-haired Duchess, 59, and has never noticed her drinking to excess'."

All those quotes from friends are suspect simply because, if they had been lines of dialogue in a play, they would have been unconvincing and provoked a strike among the actors, since the words were difficult to utter: it is simply not how people, certainly not friends, actually speak.

It might be unfair to deny journalists completely the friends formula for conveying information and comment. But the fact is that though it may not necessarily be an unforgivably dishonest trick, there is no sure means by which the public can tell whether or not it is a dishonest trick.

All unattributed quotes and sources should perhaps be regarded with a measure of caution, especially when they are part of the trick in which unnamed friends are invoked.

Regurgitated and reconstituted facts, as distinct from original research, are a lazier trick, and one which possibly has greater dangers.

Tricks Journalists Play by Dennis Barker is out now, published by Giles de la Mare Publishers

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