In the lead-up to the 2013 election, anonymous backgrounding by Kevin Rudd helped bring down Julia Gillard’s government. And while Tony Abbott has promised not to background against or undermine his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, many in the press gallery increasingly believe Abbott or people close to him are doing just that.

Anonymous briefings pose a problem for journalists. Politicians are held to party lines, and they are frequently only willing to say what’s really going on when they are off the record. But off-the-record discussions can leave journalists open to being manipulated, and even when they realise it, they are unable to tell their readers about it.

In response to some of these problems, America’s most august paper, The New York Times, has decided to crack down. Last week, the grey lady announced — after years of criticism by its internal readers’ editor and, recently, two major front-page stuff-ups caused by anonymous sources — that it intends to toughen up its oversight of their use in news stories.

An email to journalists sent on Tuesday, signed by the paper’s top editors, says at best, anonymous sources allow journalists to uncover abuses from sources who are at risk:

“But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favour of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism — and it has turned out to be wrong. “

According to the Times‘ new policy, one of three senior editors must sign off on the publication of stories that rely heavily on information from unnamed sources. And any use of anonymous sources at all must be approved by a desk head. It’s always been NYT policy, the report on the changes states, that any use of anonymous sources, including their identity, must be known and approved by a desk editor.

Public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the policy’s success would depend on its enforcement. According to Crikey’s research, the policy is far stricter than any at media organisations in Australia.

Apart from the ABC, codes on anonymous sources at major organisations are more statements of principles than firm policies (though News Corp’s does say journalists must seek information from other sources if information is given on background).

The press gallery is Australia’s most competitive journalistic battleground. It’s also the institution most under fire for use of anonymous background sources (helped along by self-serving politicians who complain about backgrounding while doing it themselves). But it appears the treatment of information from background sources often comes down to a judgement call by journalists themselves, along with their increasingly overworked desk editors.

The ABC’s publicly available policy is five pages long and quite nuanced. It outlines preferred forms of attribution (the more specific the description of the source the better) and suggestions about how to approach, negotiate and test the information given by a source. The code shares some similarities with that at the New York Times. If anonymously sourced information forms the basis of a story (as opposed to adding colour), it must be upwardly referred to both ABC legal and a senior editorial manager.

“It is mandatory to disclose a source’s identity, if sought, to an appropriately senior ABC person designated for that purpose,” the policy states. So ABC journalists must be willing to reveal the identity of their sources, but they do not have to do so unless asked.

News Corp’s editorial code of conduct has a section on anonymous sources and urges using them sparingly:

“When an informant insists on anonymity, verification of the information offered must be sought from other, preferably attributable, sources.”

It also warns journalists about the personal risk they take in assuring sources of confidentiality — they could be forced to act in contempt of court, for example. But the policy, which is significantly briefer than the ABC’s, does not explicitly lay out how editors will deal with information sourced from unidentified sources, or how far up the editorial chain the identity of sources will go.

Crikey’s formal policy is similar to News Corp’s, but it is a statement of principles rather than firm guidance on what to do, and sources do not have to be disclosed to editors:

“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 possible. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”

Fairfax’s policy is briefer yet again. It states that sometimes it’s necessary to promise sources that their identities will remain confidential, and that the company is committed to protecting the identity of confidential sources. “We will strike a balance between the right of the public to information and the right of individuals to privacy.”

Peter Fray

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