When newspapers conspire to suppress free speech

Earlier this week, eminent legal journalist Joshua Rozenberg wrote about a legal battle between the BBC and the government over the naming of a ‘spy.’ The Attorney-General, Rt Hon Suella Braverman MP, had sought to prevent the BBC naming an intelligence operative in one of their reports.

Such skirmishes over the limits of freedom of expression, balanced against national security, are nothing new. We recall the Spycatcher affair; and the highly questionable detention of David Miranda.

What piqued my interest about this case was the fact that the Daily Telegraph twice published briefings against the BBC, quoting anonymous and therefore entirely unaccountable government “sources.”

In January, that source told the Telegraph that the person whom the BBC wanted to identify was a “spy … working abroad.” Earlier this week the same newspaper reported that “there would be huge disquiet” if the report went ahead, and that national security would be compromised.

But now it turns out that was nonsense. The spy was a domestic informer (those who work for the police, or who watch Line of Duty, will be familiar with the term ‘CHIS’) who told women that he worked for MI5 in order to terrorise and control them.

So here we see something quite depressing: a news outlet has been manipulated by the government into publishing misinformation about, and veiled threats against, other journalists.

Now I’m sure that Helen Cahill, Charles Hymas and Christopher Hope, authors of the Daily Telegraph stories, would be mortified to think that they were complicit in the chilling of press freedom. But that is the effect of their quoting of an anonymous source that has, as Joshua Rozenberg points out, misled them.

This is not an argument for ending the practice of off-the-record chats and anonymous sources. Indeed, anonymity is a crucial aspect of free speech.

But there are, I suggest, two kinds of anonymous briefings.

  • Those where the anonymous source provides negative or ‘inculpatory’ information about the government or powerful organisation; and
  • Those where the anonymous source provides positive or ‘exculpatory’ information about the government.

Sources providing ‘exculpatory’ information carry far less of a burden than whistle-blowers. They are unlikely to be hounded by anyone investigating a leak. Whatever it is they say is unlikely to be met with a campaign of denial.

The difference between the two kinds of leaker is stark. When a leaker is ‘exculpatory’ the journalist and their editor need a different — and probably less credulous — approach to the source. Otherwise they risk becoming government stenographers and freelance propagandists for people who have a large enough platform already.

Note: This was written in February but for some reason wasn’t actually published at that time time. This post went ‘live’ on 27th July 2022, when this issue was no longer a ‘live’ story.

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