Most anonymous quotes in newspapers are made up, former Downing Street spin doctor and Daily Mirror political editor Alastair Campbell claimed today.
Campbell spoke out after the Sunday Times apologised to John Prescott over a front-page article which appeared yesterday headlined: “Labour big beasts maul Ed Miliband”.
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Prescott was quoted as telling “friends” that “it is only early days, but it has not been a great start” by the party’s leader Ed Miliband.
Prescott later claimed on Twitter that the Sunday Times called his family home in Hull but that he ‘had no opportunity to even ask a question’because he asked the journalist who phoned him never to call the number again and put the phone down.
The Sunday Times then tweeted an apology to Prescott which said: “Due to a prod error a quote was wrongly attributed to @johnprescott. We apologise for the confusion & are happy to set the record straight.”
Writing on his blog today, Campbell said
The paper’s claim that this was all down to a production error was as believable as many of the stories which appear in the Sunday papers.
And the episode is a good opportunity for me to remind you of something I have said on here before – that most anonymous quotes in newspapers, particularly at the weekends, are made up.
The current spate of anti-Ed Miliband stories is fertile ground for the ‘a friend said’, ‘a colleague said’, ‘a former friend/colleague said’, ‘a senior (never junior) source said’ variety of ‘journalism.’Have you noticed how the anonymous sources always speak in the style of the paper, how the broadsheet anonymous quotes are just that little bit longer than the tabloids?
Campbell said that, while there was always a place for anonymous quotes, in the past the balance of probability was that they were genuine, I think these days the balance of probability is that they are not.
Prescott, meanwhile, is demanding a front-page apology in next week’s Sunday Times.
UPDATE: The PCC confirmed it has received a letter from Full Fact asking it to investigate how the quote came to be published.
In a letter sent to the press watchdog today, Full Fact’s Will Moy wrote:
What kind of production error could lead to a quote of this significance being wrongly attributed? Has the Sunday Times failed in its duty to ‘take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information?
Is the quote real? Did anyone ever say it? The change from naming Mr Prescott to naming nobody in our view raises enough doubt over its credibility that we now believe the burden is on the paper to justify to the PCC that the use of the quote itself is not a significant inaccuracy.
I should stress that we are not suggesting that the paper or reporter in question made up the quote. Indeed, a complainant could never do that: the nature of anonymous quotes is that only the publisher would know if they were made up.
However, doubts have been raised by others and anonymous quotes, which have an important role in journalism, will only retain their potency if the public knows that the Press Complaints Commission is vigilant in upholding high standards in connection with their use. Better one investigation too many than one too few.
A spokesman for the PCC confirmed it had received the letter and said it will be considered in line with ususal procedures.