The problem with anonymous sources

By | | comments |

Journalists with their unnamed sources are far from a cornerstone of democracy, says David Horton — and, in fact, may be something of a threat.


JOURNALISTS WITH secret sources a cornerstone of our democracy, 'eh?

Well, I'm not so sure. Oh, I know that “I will never reveal the names of my sources” is the Hippocratic Oath of Journalism. And yes, yes, I know all about Watergate. But still, surprisingly, I have me doubts!

Seems hardly an Australian media political story these days, and reflected from there into Twitter, which doesn’t include 'senior government sources', 'senior ministers', 'a number of backbenchers', 'Labor insiders', 'political observers', 'a former power broker', down to that deepest of Deep Throats, the ubiquitous 'some', who frequently appears 'saying' things, as a source of stories, inevitably damaging to the government.

Now, journalists defend this anonymity by arguing that it is an essential part of their trade to protect the identity of sources, otherwise no whistleblower would ever come forward. In this narrative (for it is just a narrative like all journalism these days) these intrepid journalists find honest insiders willing to lift the lid on some terrible political wrongdoing hidden behind closed doors and the public must be kept informed.

But it is impossible to think of such a story in recent years.

Instead, the “whistle blowing” – the “leaks from insiders” – all have a single theme and purpose — to “reveal” and exacerbate whatever personal tensions exist within the Federal Government. Either because it suits the agenda of a media proprietor, or of the Opposition, or of someone who wants to retrieve a Field Marshall’s baton from a knapsack in which (they believe) it was prematurely stored.

That is, this kind of "leak journalism" is not aimed at the public interest, but at private interests in the Great Game of politics. The identity of informants, where they do actually exist (and I suggest some are, like the dead body in World War 2 Operation Mincemeat, not real people at all), is not being protected because of the value of their information to the public, but to hide the nasty political games they are actually playing.

What’s more, their anonymity has become a way of journalists inflating the apparent value of sources, of effortlessly increasing them in both numbers and rank to give a totally false impression of the meaning of a story. Pretending that the journalist has 50 whistleblowers, instead of one whistleblower — 50 times. And a way of hiding secret agendas, political and business. And of disguising the informant who is a member of a think tank, pushing a nasty neoconservative economic agenda on behalf of paymasters. And of pretending that “inside information” from the Labor Party isn’t, in fact, coming from a cunning Liberal troublemaker.

And so on.

The media has been completely happy with fake whistleblowers, helping them, for example, churn out endless fake “Rudd challenge” stories, with no more effort than pushing a programmed function key on a keyboard. But the media have treated with contempt those ultimate real whistleblowers: Assange and Manning. Their stories needed investigation, work, writing, and – more scarily – would actually involve speaking truth to power. A function once primary for journalists, but apparently no longer — at least not for the Fourth Estate.

Anyway, I think it's time for a change to this “secret informant” business.

Some say all informants’ identities should be made public, in the interests of transparency, unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so...

What do you say?

(This story was originally published on David Horton's Watermelon Blog and has been republished with permission. You can follow David on Twitter @Watermelon_Man.)

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
Recent articles by David Horton
Irony at the ABC

The release of the Lewis Review into the ABC yesterday putting the finishing ...  
The Australian Tories and the Currency Lads and Lasses

Australia is the only country founded with a deliberately imposed class system ...  
Joe Hockey finds wind turbines offensive

Joe Hockey thinks wind turbines are a "blight on the landscape"; David Horton ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate