In confidence


“Sources close to the minister.”
“Government sources.”

We quote them all the time. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes, the only way to get information is to protect a source. And sometimes, that protection is cover for a handler to control the message while remaining safely anonymous.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read “A fatal lack of accountability“. The argument is simple: How much less misinformation would we report if ministers and their official spokespersons were held accountable for their words.

There’s an insidious process at work every time a journalist grants anonymity. Something that should be a calculated decision based on special circumstances has become casual, almost routine. It sounds so much more impressive to say “sources” than “this is the official line”.

And every time we do it, the risk of source capture rises. Journalists become stenographers, passing on the official line. Next thing you know, press officers think they can screen what questions you ask.

Fionnan Sheahan tweeted about just such an incident today, although he did not name the press officer in question.

There’s a simple solution: Next time, name the press officer who gives you the quote you needed for your article.


By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.

One comment

  1. As usual, you make a good point. (Indeed, more than just one).

    However, it seems to me that both Sheehan and yourself are being a bit over-prickly about the Government press officer’s enquiry.

    I can see how any response to it could be abused, but on the other hand, media abuse also occurs when a complex question is posed out of context and the media then ridicule the politician because s/he does not have a “pat” answer ready.

    You may retort that any politician worth their salt can cope with such questions. I say that that is not so, and add that any journalist worth their salt can easily find a way to respond politely to a press officer’s question without compromising their integrity.

Comments are closed.