Would It Break Journalism If Sources Who Lied Were Named?

Journalists Laura Keunssberg and Robert Peston have egg on their face this week, after they both breathlessly tweeted the news that a Tory staffer had been punched by a Labour activist in Leeds.

When video emerged of the incident, it turned out that no assault had taken place. One man accidentally brushed past the hand of another.

Both Keunssberg and Peston posted follow up tweets to apologise and share the video. But in giving an explanation for their inaccuracy, they enraged people further. Both journalists gave the excuse that ‘sources’ had told them it was true.

Needless to say, ‘senior Tories’ are not objective or reliable. Both Keunssberg and Peston should have checked the claim before reporting it to their 1.1 million and 1 million twitter followers, respectively.

Guardian media editor Jim Waterson points out that traditional broadcast journalists think of twitter as a notepad. This is journalism-as-iteration, with whispers of a story being refined, fleshed out and sometimes refuted as it unfolds. I have some sympathy for this conception – there are plenty of public interest stories where journalists can only get the verification they seek by publishing something unconfirmed. The child abuse perpetrated by people like Jimmy Saville would have come to light much earlier, for example.

But the punch-that-wasn’t is not one of those stories, and this unedifying example of ‘access journalism’ will, to many people, become emblematic of the way in which our mainstream media is becoming a government ‘parrot,’ rather than the ‘bloodhound’ that we citizens need if our politicians are to be held to account.

The protection of journalists sources is a crucial element in the right to freedom of expression. There is Strasbourg case law to that effect: Goodwin v U.K. is the landmark case, where a journalist declined to reveal the source of a corporate leak despite legal pressure from the company in question.

But that was a case where a journalist sought to keep his sources confidential from the other people. It says nothing about a journalist who choose to ‘burn’ their own sources by identifying them.

When anyone speaks to a journalist ‘off the record’ there is usually an understanding that they will not be identified as the source of information. But that ethical understanding exists so that truth and fact can emerge. For people to hide behind anonymity to spread smears and lies (as another – or perhaps the same – Tory source did by spreading rumours about Dominic Grieve ‘colluding with the EU’ in the autumn) is an abuse of that journalistic principle.

Clearly, if journalists want to participate in ‘on background’ briefings then they need to take greater care to verify what they are told, before they publish any version of it.

But perhaps they also need to refine their code, so that sources who tell a demonstrable lie to a journalist will have their anonymity withdrawn. This practice would set an example pour encourager les autres.

Unfortunately, the very people who most need to deploy this policy are those like Keunssberg and Peston who depend on ‘access’ to squeeze information out of the Westminster bubble. They would presumably say in response that if they were to ‘burn’ one source then they would never be told anything ever again. The politicians would leak and gossip to someone else.

But I do not think that is true. Lobby journalists wield particular power. There is not just one source confidential information at Westminster and the other political citadels. Yes, there are other journalists. But there are also other politicians available to converse with those journalists! If a political operative cuts off a journalist who outs their lie, they cut off a crucial messaging route for themselves, while leaving it open for their opponents. Meanwhile, they will also accrue a reputation as a liar, which means other journalists will be less willing to listen to them. Keunssberg, Peston and the rest have more power than they might imagine. They should use it responsibly, in the public interest.

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