The "outing" of Deep Throat earlier this month has thrown the
subject of anonymous journalistic sources into the spotlight. Woodward
and Bernstein's history-making scoop about corruption in the Nixon
Whitehouse would never have seen the light of day without the strict
anonymity given to FBI number two Mark Felt. And there is no doubt that
use of secret sources will always have a role to play in journalism.
But are the various anonymous "insiders", "friends" and "sources close to" that pepper news stories being overused?
- September 21, 2018
- June 12, 2018
- October 28, 2016
readers trust stories to be true if the sources of the information
aren't named? And is there a danger of newspapers simply becoming
vehicles for people wishing to snipe anonymously at their enemies?
Press Gazette asked a selection of leading news organisations what their guidelines, if any, are on quoting the unnamed.
The Guardian style guide provides exhaustive advice for its journalists on the use of anonymous sources.
In it, editor Alan Rusbridger says anonymous pejorative quotes
should be avoided in particular and he admits to "the unthinking damage
of which we have been guilty in the past by casual repetition of
derogatory unattributed remarks".
He adds: "There may be
exceptional circumstances in which anonymous pejorative quotes may be
used, but they will be rare – and it should be only after consultation
with the senior editor of the day." That judgement should be made, says
Rusbridger, after first considering the quality of the source, the
public interest case and the source's motive.
Rusbridger says that unattributed quotes can be a "menace" that readers
distrust. He advises journalists to avoid using the phrase "friends of"
as a "transparent reference to the actual source" and says he prefers
"a source who declined to be named".
If sources insist on
remaining anonymous, he urges journalists to press them for some sort
of identifying information such as calling them a senior minister or
Cabinet minister rather than just an MP.
The Financial Times also has strict guidelines on use of anonymous quotes.
Joanna Manning- Cooper says: "As a media organisation which prides
itself on accuracy and authoritative reporting, we always work hard to
encourage our sources to go on the record. Unfortunately it's simply
not possible in many instances, particularly where regulatory
strictures constrain sources from speaking openly.
"But when we
do use anonymous sources we ensure that we follow a set of internal
guidelines, including the need to put direct challenges, allegations or
criticisms to the person or company concerned and putting their
response in the story, even when it's no comment."
editor Roger Alton outlines the policy at his newspaper thus: "A lot of
unattributed negative opinion about people you can disregard, but if we
get a large volume of them you think Ã¯¿½there's something else going on
there which we need to substantiate'.
"At the same time there are a high number of stories that wouldn't come about if people couldn't stay anonymous.
had a story before I was here when an unnamed source speaking to Andrew
Rawnsley said there was a view that the Chancellor had psychological
flaws. It made a lot of running as a news story in 1997 to 1998 but the
person who said that couldn't have gone on the record."
believes anonymous sources were used too much in relation to the
Government intelligence briefings held in the run-up to the Iraq war.
says: "There was clearly an enormous amount of double-speak about
weapons of mass destruction and it was coming from anonymous sources.
a complicated issue. Nobody's going bonkers with anonymous sources, but
sometimes you have to use anonymous sources or stories wouldn't get
At the tabloid end of the market, newspapers don't
appear to have clear guidelines on sources but rather deal with stories
on a case-by-case basis.
Sun managing editor Graham Dudman says:
"Mainly it's when someone asks us not to use their name or we choose
not to for fear of compromising them. You've got to judge each case
"If [chief reporter] John Kay says Ã¯¿½I know it's right' then someone won't say to John Ã¯¿½I need to know who your source is'."
Mirror group political editor David Seymour says: "There are so many
political stories that are genuine stories and honest quotes but you
can't say who the person quoted is.
In journalism heaven every quote is attributable but you have to live in the real world.
situation in Westminster has got better in the past few years. When
Blair came to power and Alastair Campbell arrived there were still
these Lobby briefings where you couldn't even say somebody had said
something – these stories came out of the ether.
Now at least the reporter can say Ã¯¿½the Prime Minister's official spokesman said'."
The use of anonymous sources undermines the public's trust,
according to Lincolnshire Echo editor Mike Sassi, who says journalists
in the regional press use them more sparingly than the national media.
He says: "I am amazed at how many unnamed sources are used in the
national press. On our letters page you could count the amount of Ã¯¿½name
and address supplied' letters on two hands in a year.
more important for regional papers to be trusted than the nationals.
The nationals can report on a story, wreak havoc and rush off into the
distance. We live and work in our community and can't look as though
we're being biased or making anything up. This is what creates a divide
between you and your readers.
"Papers need to be credible,
reliable and trustworthy. Occasionally we have to use anonymous sources
on professional sports stories because you often find that's the way
things work but in news it's very rare.
"In recent years we have carried a few stories as facts and have used no quotes at all rather than quoting an anonymous source.
should never say never. In the past we have used unnamed sources. If
there was a part two of a council agenda [press and public excluded] it
might be appropriate to get a direct quotefrom the meeting, but only if
it was strongly in the public interest. In that case we would write
that it came from a source who did not want to be named."
editor of the Eastern Daily Press, Paul Durrant, believes as long as
journalists are confident their source is 100 per cent reliable, then
it is acceptable to quote them anonymously in stories.
ask [for anonymity], we will accommodate but it is important we know
their credentials and that they are an impeccable, gilt-edged source.
If we get a tip then it's down to us to stand it up elsewhere but I am
quite happy to keep their anonymity.
"The policy of Woodward and
Bernstein was to get their story stood up by three sources. These are
the sort of traditional standards that remain important today. I
certainly wouldn't go on one source, I would need at least a second
"This has not changed as far as the EDP is concerned, the
traditional standards still apply. I don't think it undermines the
trust of our readers as there is a level of trust implicit with EDP
If our journalists were ever unsure they would know to check with the news desk."
Westrop, head of legal at Newsquest, warns that if a story using
anonymous quotes went to court the source might be unwilling to help
with any legal defence.
He says: "If what they are saying is
potentially libellous, my advice would be against using anonymous
sources on the basis that they are unlikely to come to court if it all
goes wrong. There may be exceptional circumstances, Watergate would be
one, where you'd argue the story is so important it should be legally
privileged even if your source is anonymous.
more safely use them as a research tool and get the information
corroborated elsewhere. To found a story entirely on them is very risky.
"Journalists should ask: Ã¯¿½Why are they asking to be anonymous? Are they reliable? Do they have an axe to grind?
Why do they not want to face public criticism?'
there is good reason otherwise, if somebody is criticising a third
party they should be prepared to put their name to that so the accused
knows who their accuser is."
John Kampfner, editor of left-wing weekly the New Statesman, says
there were "certain instances" in which the use of anonymous sources
was necessary to get a good story out.
"My entire book, Blair's Wars, was predicated on granting each and every source complete anonymity," he says.
was even when some of them were quite relaxed about being quoted,
because to have done so would have exposed others who could have been
identified through a process of elimination.
"However, it's not ideal and it needs to be treated with great care. Where possible on-the-record quotes should be used."
adds that there is a danger of being used by a source, who could hide
behind the reporter to spread malicious gossip. "I wouldn't use a
particular quote from someone who required anonymity if I felt I was
being used for non-journalistic purposes."
At the New Scientist,
writers are urged only to use anonymous sources in exceptional
circumstances, according to deputy news editor Michael LePage.
But he claims the issue is rarely raised at the weekly science title.
would not use anonymous sources unless there was a very good reason and
I'd have to discuss it with the editor," he says. "An exception would
be when you trust the source and can independently confirm that what
they're saying is accurate and there's no way to get that on record.
But it's come up very infrequently with us, it's not generally
something that we have a problem with."
He adds: "In some
contexts you might have a whistleblower who can't go on the record for
fear of losing his job and we need more of that kind of reporting,
rather than less."
John Grimond, foreign editor at The Economist, says all information from anonymous sources should be independently corroborated.
"There is a big difference between a source who is prepared to go on record and one who isn't," he adds.
The BBC has re-examined its guidelines on the use of anonymous
quotes following the Hutton Inquiry and the fallout from Andrew
Gilligan's conversations with the "senior intelligence source" later
outed as Dr David Kelly.
The BBC has changed its producers'
guidelines to include more
detail on the use of sources. These state: "When a source asks for
anonymity as a condition of giving information, or a contributor
demands anonymity when taking part, we must agree with them precisely
the way they are to be described.
However, with an anonymous
source, especially a source making serious allegations, we must give
the audience as much information about them as is compatible with
protecting their identity, and in a way that does not mislead the
audience about their status.
"Whenever a BBC story involves an
anonymous source, the relevant editor has the right to be told their
identity. In cases involving serious allegations we should resist any
attempt by an anonymous source to prevent their identity being revealed
to a senior BBC editor. If this happens, the reporter should make it
clear that the information obtained confidentially may not be broadcast.
When anonymity is agreed everyone must be clear about its extent."
head of compliance John Battle says: "We don't have specific policy, we
take it on a case-by-case basis, which we discuss with our journalists
based on the credibility of the source."
Reuters has reviewed its
editorial standards and policies over the past year. A spokeswoman says
its policy on anonymous sources has always been tough, but the new
handbook for journalists goes into greater depth in explaining it.
states that the use of anonymous sources is permitted in restricted
circumstances when journalists cannot obtain the information in any
other way. The sources must have first-hand knowledge of the
information they provide and it must be newsworthy.
does not run opinion or contentious statements attributed to anonymous
sources and stories based on anonymous sources require rigorous
cross-checking with other sources.
Reuters journalists are
frequently reminded to press sources to go on the record and to
negotiate hard to ensure they can describe the source in as detailed a
way as possible so readers can assess the credibility of the sources.
agency says it takes the view that a named source is always best, but
it accepts there are times when critical information is in the public's
interest and cannot be obtained any other way.