Alan Jones and Peter Slipper aren’t the only public and private individuals who have discovered, after the fact, a comment can sound quite different in newsprint. A journo’s sources may also expect protection from backlash without actually saying how. “You didn’t hear this from me, but …” — it’s the start of a great story, but can it be published?

Off and on-the-record, on background and Chatham House rule are part of everyday vocabulary for journos to get the scoop and pollies to get leverage in Canberra. It’s a difficult code to crack for an outsider, especially when one person’s “off-the-record” can mean “publish without my name” and another can mean “keep this quiet”.

For some journalists the rules are black and white; for others there is grey where confidences can be broken and off-the-record can be put in print.

In Australia we have the MEAA Code of Ethics and the Australian Press Council’s Statement of Principles to guide choices. Article 3 of the MEAA Code of Ethics says journalists must:

“… aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”

The Australian Press Council’s fifth general principle states:

“… information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.”

The Australian Press Council doesn’t define the “over-riding public interest”; the MEAA doesn’t mention it at all. What is or isn’t in the public interest, and the point at which the bar is set to break confidences, has been debated over the publication of Jones’ comments at the Sydney University Liberal Club dinner by Sunday Telegraph journalist Jonathan Marshall. The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent Phillip Coorey told Crikey: “I think the reaction it elicited shows there was definite public interest in that … people couldn’t get enough of that.” He said the comments were made at a public function and by a public figure: “I don’t think what that reporter did was particularly evil.”

Coorey, a news breaker in Canberra, works on the assumption all of his interviews are off-the-record until it’s agreed otherwise. Publishing stories that don’t name sources is standard practice in Canberra, he says. “In politics especially, no one is prepared to put their name to much. There’s a lot of good stories and the only way you can tell it is by not putting names to it,” he said.

According to Denis Muller, a former senior editor at The Sydney Morning Herald who now lectures at the University of Melbourne, “the definition in the literature is generally that off-the-record means that it can’t be published and it can’t be attributed”. The advantage of off-the-record, he says, is that journalists can use information gained in that way to try and get another source on-the-record.

Julie Posetti from the University of Canberra agrees with Coorey and says she has worked in newsrooms where off-the-record can mean the information can be published without attribution. She says there is also “deeply off-the-record” which means “please don’t ask anything that will allow anyone to identify that you know this”.

Jones had journalism students furiously Googling the term “Chatham House” when he used it in his press conference apology to Julia Gillard last month. Its definition and implementation have since been dissected. The rule is, as it appears on the website:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under 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.”

It is generally accepted the rule must be stated each time it is used, even if it is a common practice at an organisation to use the rule often. In a world where smart phones allow anyone to call themselves a journalist, this rule could be as old fashioned as a horse and cart.

Definitions of “background” and “deep background” also vary widely. In defending his choice to out Peter Costello’s claim that John Howard had no chance of winning the 2007 election, the ABC’s Michael Brissenden said at the time: “We were understood that this was a conversation that was on background, which is certainly not attributable but it’s certainly there to influence stories that we were going to write in the future.”

It could almost be said that background and off-the-record are interchangeable, but when the definitions of the terms can differ from newsroom to newsroom they are also just exercises in degrees.

The question of when it’s time to cross the line and break a confidence is fraught. When a journalist publicises something that is off-the-record, or on background, the question is mostly not over the circumstances but of the public interest in the story. Muller and Posetti agree the bar for public interest should be high; Posetti says a statement that revealed a political lie could be enough to break a confidence but “as journalists we have a code and in the interests of trust we need to abide the code”.

Off-the-record is never the end of the story. In Canberra, information from “sources” often fuels the news agenda. For Coorey, trust in an off-the-record source is vital because of the criticism journalists cop if they get it wrong. “In about the two to three months leading up to the February leadership challenge I got an amazing amount of shit and hatred from readers and idiots on Twitter, from people saying we were making it up and suddenly in February there’s a leadership challenge,” he said.

For Muller, if a journalist wants to report on something said under the Chatham House rule they should approach the speaker to try and get a comment on-the-record or comments to similar effect. To manage different expectations of an off-the-record conversation, Posetti always asks “can you explain what you think off the record means?”. It can be awkward, but with the possible consequences of a misunderstanding it prevents storms like the one Marshall found himself in.