The Media Column: Why 'off the record' has to mean just that

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The first time that an interviewee (the person and subject escapes me now) said to me, "The next bit is off the record", was the moment that I felt I was a real, grown-up journalist. I rolled up my trouser-leg and entered the brotherhood of secret signs and understandings. The words promised excitement. I was going to be told something so confidential that my interlocutor not only didn't want to be named, but didn't want the information he was disclosing to be printed at all. But the phrase also meant frustration. After all, I couldn't now actually use this information in any but the most restricted way.

The first time that an interviewee (the person and subject escapes me now) said to me, "The next bit is off the record", was the moment that I felt I was a real, grown-up journalist. I rolled up my trouser-leg and entered the brotherhood of secret signs and understandings. The words promised excitement. I was going to be told something so confidential that my interlocutor not only didn't want to be named, but didn't want the information he was disclosing to be printed at all. But the phrase also meant frustration. After all, I couldn't now actually use this information in any but the most restricted way.

The way that I was told it, when someone says that he or she is now "off the record", the camera stops rolling and the pen scratches out the name. It is a contract of journalistic honour. If you break it, your source will never speak to you again, and may never speak to any journalist again. Worse, you damage that solid wall that journalists must turn to the courts and the authorities when they come angrily looking for our sources.

I was in Cornwall at the Daphne du Maurier literary festival last week, when the Byers Affair (Mark 10) broke. I could have been on the Moon. But, as I looked up from the books of the writers I was to be interviewing, I became aware first of "a minister" who had just told a journalist that referendum legislation might be introduced in the next session of Parliament, and then – by the early evening, courtesy of the BBC – that the informant had been Stephen Byers. By Newsnight, I had the full story from one of the women who'd been present at the lunch of women members of the lobby at which Mr Byers had made his comments.

The lunch was "off the record". To the outside world, it hadn't existed. Those were the terms on which it had happened. And yet, within minutes of the espressos being consumed, the words were being reported, and within hours, the dramatis personae. By way of collective self-exculpation, one BBC political reporter explained on the BBC website that, "anyone with any experience of Westminster should have known that by speaking at such a large gathering, his identity was bound to leak". It was Byers's fault that journalists had broken the code.

On Sunday, the Telegraph reported the words of an unnamed MoD official that the Marine commander in Afghanistan – Brigadier Roger Lane – was "a man out of his depth and should be sacked. The whole operation is quickly becoming a farce". The Defence Secretary moved to defend the Brigadier (whose removal was then announced), and the MoD attacked the story as "garbage".

You could argue that the source here was more important even than in the Byers case. So, why should the official's identity be protected any more than the minister's? Was it because Byers is a busted flush, damaged goods, for whom the normal rules needn't apply? This is a man routinely called a liar in banner headlines in the Daily Mail. Does he deserve our journalistic consideration?

This is a jolly game. But now let's consider the two Channel 4 reporters who have been under exceptional pressure to divulge the identities of four paratroopers who spoke to them when they were making a programme about Bloody Sunday. The Saville inquiry wants to subpoena the soldiers, so that the full truth about terrible events can be known. But the journalists are prepared to risk prison rather than break their undertaking to maintain the anonymity of their sources. As one of them, Alex Thomson, has said, "Protecting sources is not an à la carte option".

Thomson is probably right. But if I were a clever barrister arguing this case, I might point out to the court how these noble rules are broken or bent by journalists themselves. How we seem to invoke them or waive them according to fashion, and not to principle.

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