Was it or was it not under Chatham House Rule that Immigration Minister Chris Evans made his interesting remarks about the asylum seeker debate? And what’s Chatham House in any case?

The rules date from 1927, with later amendments, and relate to the London-based think tank and talk shop once known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The best explanation is on the Chatham House website, which boasts that its rule encourages openness and the sharing of information. (Among good chaps, at least).

Like all off-the-record arrangements, Chatham House is a compromise. Journalists are ethically bound to reveal all essential facts. When they agree to hear information off the record, they are basically agreeing to withhold a crucial fact (the identity of the source) because they judge the public interest is better served by hearing the information, and this can only be done if the source is protected.

It’s a conflict between different ethical imperatives, and therefore off the record is a tool to be used thoughtfully and with care. It is the product of a negotiation, explicit or implicit, and should not be assumed to be done a deal.

To be precise, the rule says:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, 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”.

So was the meeting at which Evans spoke Chatham House? Apparently not. The details of the conference program, including the speakers, were publicised widely, although it should be noted that on its website there is the stipulation that conference participation is by invitation only.

But if we are to believe Samantha Maiden, the media was invited.

And unless the reporters concerned agreed to attend under the Chatham House Rule, then there was no deal and what Evans said was fair game for reporting. An off-the-record agreement of any kind is just that — an agreement.  Both sides have to agree.

So, assuming that Maiden’s account is accurate, it seems that a reporter wandered in late and nobody shooed him away or mentioned Chatham House.

If he knew that the understanding was Chatham House, and had agreed to attend under those terms, then he would be guilty of an ethical breach. But as I understand it, that’s not what happened here.

Was he entitled to report what he heard? In my opinion, absolutely!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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