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A fatal lack of accountability

Proven lies show why official spokespeople should be named by journalists

By Heather Brooke - Share this article

An excerpt from The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy, by Heather Brooke.

Official spokespeople, by the very definition of their role, have absolutely no reason to be anonymous. Yet one of the more dubious practices of the British press is the way reporters collude with officials by granting them anonymity.

Sources should be granted anonymity only in very limited circumstances where naming may cause specific harm (such as a whistleblower who could lose his job). There is no reason a Home Office spokesman, for example, should be granted anonymity, yet I’ve had many arguments with these people who insist on it as their ‘right’. Meanwhile, they demand to know all about me—my name, my publication, what my ‘angle’ is, etc. I usually do get their names from email correspondence and print them in the newspaper. So far the sky has not fallen and I’ve not been locked up for giving a name to the usually nameless mouthpieces.

Although they will tell you it’s because they are not speaking as an individual but in the place of someone else or an institution, the real reason spokespeople don’t want to be named is no different from that of the policeman who removes his badge before assaulting a protestor: deniability. Official spokespeople are powerful because they speak for the powerful; anonymity means they can exercise that power without being held individually accountable for it. They make pronouncements that impact the public directly and yet the public have no idea who has said what. It’s not good enough to say they are speaking for someone else.

We all know about Alastair Campbell, the king of spin, but did you know that for most of his career as Tony Blair’s spokesman he was anonymised by the press? The public simply had no idea he was the one saying the things that were said. Only after he was unmasked—a face and name put to the ‘official spokesman’—did he become individually accountable for what he said. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it was shortly afterwards that he resigned.

When a ‘spokesman’ makes an accusation or spreads a smear, what recourse is there for the target? Anonymising spokespeople suits some journalists because if every source is simply a ‘spokesman’ or ‘official’ then it’s easy to make up any old quote to suit your story. As a reader you should be sceptical of such quotes. The source of news (who said it) is just as important as what is said. It’s much trickier to put imagined words into a named individual’s mouth (and when that does happen there are sanctions that person can take against the reporter or source).

Reporters in the US are told always to fight against officials’ attempts to be anonymous. I believe this is a fundamental role of the journalist: to push officials to stand behind what they say. If they don’t agree, then don’t print it or give it airtime. It really is that simple. If journalists stuck together on just this one point, they could overnight force a change in the culture of Parliament, the Civil Service and many public services.

Why naming matters: the case of the Speakerʼs speaker

For reporters covering Parliament, December is a difficult month. The House of Commons is in recess and MPs are away for five weeks. To fill the gap, Simon Walters of the Mail on Sunday put in a freedom-of-information request for the details of the taxi claims made by the Speaker’s wife. The reply came (perhaps not coincidentally) over the Christmas break when Walters was away on holiday. Just to ensure he didn’t get the scoop he clearly wanted, the Commons posted the answer on the Web, which is where another reporter, Sam Coates of The Times, found it. The reply stated that the wife of Speaker Michael Martin had claimed £4,280.20 since May 2004 on 156 taxi journeys, mainly for shopping trips.

‘I called the Speaker’s office to ask about these claims,’ Sam Coates told me. ‘It was difficult because around Christmas the House isn’t sitting. But I do remember I was given this number for a guy called Mike Granatt who didn’t even work at the House of Commons. I seem to recall I woke him up and he was in some foreign country and I remember thinking “Isn’t it ridiculous that I have to call some guy halfway round the world to find out what the Speaker is doing just a few yards away from me?”’

Mike Granatt is an experienced communications consultant. He is a partner at the Luther Pendragon PR agency, and former director of the Government Information Service. In 2007/8 he was working as media adviser to the House of Commons Commission, the management committee chaired by Michael Martin (more on Martin in Chapter 8). The Speaker was at that time under heavy criticism both for his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal but also his own very liberal expense claims. Plus he was using public money to employ a private PR firm.

Sam asked Mike Granatt about Mary Martin’s taxi bill as he’d found that even some MPs were critical of the amounts claimed, which were more generous than their own allowed taxi claims.

‘He came back saying the reason was that she was shopping for official functions. I thought this was absolutely ludicrous,’ Sam said. ‘The idea that Mary Martin was coming back from Waitrose with bags of food for official functions rather than hiring a caterer—well, it didn’t pass the most basic journalistic smell test. I asked him: “Are you sure?” He said: “Yes. That’s the explanation.” He got quite defensive when I pressed him further. I actually thought he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I felt he wasn’t trying hard enough to get to the bottom of things so I did something I don’t normally do, which is I named him.

‘It was a way of making him take personal responsibility for his quote because I didn’t believe it and I thought he hadn’t done enough to get to the bottom of what was actually going on.’

Most newspapers repeating Sam’s story followed the usual convention and gave the Speaker’s justification anonymously:

A spokesman for Mr Martin said: ‘She goes shopping for food for entertaining official visitors.’

A Commons spokesman said: ‘The burden on a Speaker’s family can be great at times.’

However, Sam’s report in The Times stated:

Mike Granatt, a spokesman for Mr Martin, justified Mrs Martin’s claim. ‘She goes shopping for food and so on for entertaining official visitors. The Speaker entertains periodically. There is a budget that is held for the Speaker’s office and the money comes from that,’ he said. He confirmed that Mrs Martin was not employed by her husband in any capacity.

Granatt said the Speaker was justified in putting through his wife’s claims as the trips were ‘entirely in connection with household expenditure that supports the Speaker’s duties’, adding that Mrs Martin needed to take taxis to shop for food for official functions. To underline the official nature of the shopping trips, he said Mary Martin had always been accompanied by an ‘administrative official’.

Simon Walters came back from holiday and, suspicious of the line about the ‘administrative official’, set about to uncover who that person was. A few months later, he discovered the ‘official’ was none other than Mrs Martin’s housekeeper and friend, Gloria Hawkes, and, not surprisingly, it was questionable whether the shopping was for any official purpose. Some of it was clearly for the couple’s personal consumption—once a month Mrs Martin would do her shopping at a large supermarket and keep a taxi on a ‘wait and return’ basis, because (she later told a parliamentary investigator), they were ‘not easy to hail’.

‘We asked the Speaker’s office about Mrs Speaker’s shopping trips with Gloria Hawkes and they denied it,’ Simon Walters told me, ‘saying Mrs Speaker took an unnamed official to help get items for official receptions. It was a blatant fib. When Mike Granatt found out that it was Mrs Hawkes and the trips were personal, not official, he resigned. His statement on 23 February included a personal apology to me (a rare experience).’

The new reality directly contradicted the previous statement and because Mike Granatt was individually linked to what he’d told Sam Coates back in December he did not have deniability. And so:

I have stepped down from my post for ethical reasons, because I misled a journalist unwittingly. It is core to the ethical code by which I and my company operate that I tell the truth, and that I am given the truth to tell. However, I learned on Friday that I had been led to mislead journalists over material facts in a story concerning the Speaker’s household and the use of taxis. I have expressed my regrets to the journalist who brought this to my attention, and I offer them to anyone else who was similarly misled.

Asked by MPs on the Public Administration Committee to say who had misled him, Mr Granatt said he was ‘not prepared to go into details of names or places ... It wasn’t the Speaker and it wasn’t, as it was put to me, Mrs Martin.’

If Sam Coates hadn’t taken the unusual decision of breaking the convention in the British press of naming the Speaker’s speaker, would he have felt the same pressure to resign?

It begs the question—why are journalists colluding with officials by granting them anonymity and thus deniability? Most of the reporters covering Parliament don’t agree with my stance on naming. I find this depressing. If they don’t fight for the public’s right to know, who else will?

‘In practice the reason we don’t do it is that frankly people won’t talk to you again if you name them,’ Sam Coates said. ‘It would take a decision at editor level that we would do it en masse. If I was to do it unilaterally then the effect would be a huge amount of anger and a lot of people not talking to me unless I gave a guarantee that I wouldn’t do it again.’

This should make it clear just how important anonymity is to the bureaucrat. If it didn’t matter they wouldn’t fight so hard to preserve it. The reason they do is because very often statements given by a ‘spokesman’ don’t stand up to the slightest public scrutiny. It doesn’t happen every day but too often anonymous quotes turn out to be biased, misleading or just plain lies.

To smear in secrecy: the case of Guido Fawkes and Damian McBride

The year 2007 was meant to see the end of spin, yet you only had to read the newspapers to see how the ‘insider’, ‘senior source’ and ‘friend of the prime minister’ was using anonymity to spread rumours, innuendo and accusations without ever having to be accountable for what was said.

Here are some of the notable attack quotes and demolition jobs from that time (emphasis added):

10 September 2006 ‘Gordon Brown’s allies last night suggested that drink may have played a part in Charles Clarke’s extraordinary attack on the Chancellor when he accused him of being a deluded control freak with psychological problems. Friends of Mr Brown have seized on the former Home Secretary’s latest interview, in which he delivered a devastating assessment of the Labour leadership favourite, while clutching “a glass of red wine in his hand”.’

2 April 2006 ‘At one stage this weekend, sources close to Mr Brown referred to their counterparts in Mr Blair’s camp as madmen.’

21 March 2007 ‘Friends poured scorn on Lord Turnbull [the former Permanent Secretary who accused Brown of being like Stalin] as an embittered ex-official who was never highly rated and was kept out of the Chancellor’s inner circle.’

No one can match for sheer nastiness the mud-slingers in the Downing Street bunker. It’s only in a culture of anonymous sourcing that such smear tactics survive. So not surprisingly it took someone outside the parliamentary lobby to expose the chief smearer. Most lobby journalists knew all about Damian McBride but—crucially—the public did not because of the press convention of granting officials anonymity.

Damian McBride had been a member of the prime minister’s inner circle for nearly a decade. He was a career civil servant and played a lead role in the Treasury’s response to the fuel protests in 2000. He was spotted by Gordon Brown and became head of communications at the Treasury in 2003 and Brown’s special adviser in 2005. Reporters knew him as a fearsome spin doctor who ruthlessly promoted Brown. Those journalists who dared go against him received aggressive text messages about their stories.

Then in early 2009 the political blogger Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) broke convention and named McBride on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics show as the source of various smears. Things heated up even more when Staines came into possession of a series of emails sent by McBride to another Labour spin doctor, Derek Draper, in which they proposed a campaign of unfounded personal attacks against senior Conservatives, many of a sexual nature, that would help to ‘destabilise’ the opposition in the run-up to the general election. Charlie Whelan, Mr Brown’s former spin doctor, was also copied in.

In the emails, McBride detailed four possible stories to ensure that a new Labour website would start off with a bang. He described the first story, about a gay Tory MP promoting his companion’s business interests in the Commons, as a ‘solid investigative story’, suggesting that it ‘may be a good one to use early’. The other three, he admitted, were ‘gossipy and mainly intended to destabilise the Tories’. The mooted stories—all vehemently denied—were based on rumours about the personal lives of George Osborne, David Cameron and Nadine Dorries.

It’s important to remember, in light of what happened next, that if the emails hadn’t been leaked to Paul Staines then the smears would likely have gone into the public domain without any name attached. Official anonymity = total deniability.

No one should be surprised at the depths to which dirty politics can sink when people don’t have to stand behind what they say. Fortunately, however, these two spin doctors did have to stand behind what they said because Staines gave the emails he’d obtained to the Sunday Times and News of the World. Initially, the prime minister’s office tried to pass off the emails as juvenile banter, but with the smears attributed to Damian McBride by name his position was clearly untenable.

‘This is far beyond the usual rough and tumble of politics,’ Staines said, ‘these are sexual smears, some so obscene you could not print them. Damian McBride is the prime minister’s special adviser on press and politics, not some kind of juvenile in the background.’

McBride resigned soon after publication. Are these not lessons enough that all official spokespeople should be named?

A fatal lack of accountability

There are many other examples where the convention on official anonymity has dire consequences. After the 2002 train crash in Potters Bar which killed six people and injured many others, the first reports placed blame on engineering company Jarvis for shoddy maintenance. Then crisis management PR flunkeys waded in, putting it about through unattributed briefings, where they were quoted only as a ‘senior rail source’, that the crash was more likely a result of vandalism. It wasn’t until three years and an official inquiry later that the truth came out: vandalism was ‘highly unlikely’ and the probable cause was poor maintenance by Jarvis.

In June 2006, Scotland Yard raided a house in Forest Gate, east London, and shot an unarmed man. Senior officers gave unattributed statements to the press, saying the house was used for chemical terrorism (despite no evidence that this was true). They also smeared the residents, saying they had a suspiciously large amount of cash (they were Muslim and didn’t use banks), and that one had downloaded child pornography (charge dismissed for lack of evidence). All the allegations proved false but they served to distract the public from the real story—which was police incompetence. As long as the officer doing the smearing wasn’t named he could say what he liked with no comeback.

This strategy of anonymous allegations was seen earlier, when the Metropolitan Police mistakenly shot Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube in July 2005. He was variously described by ‘senior police sources’ as running away from the police, jumping a tube barrier, wearing unusually bulky clothes in hot weather, and ignoring shouted warnings from the police. All these proved completely untrue.

As long as secrecy and anonymity reign, public sector bureaucracies will be the hiding places for the incompetent, lazy and corrupt. Failures will be rewarded and successes stifled. It’s easier to lie when no one knows your name. It’s easier to do all sorts of unethical, if not criminal, things when you are promised anonymity. Only by acting as a named individual and relating to others as such can there be justice and integrity in bureaucracies.

Throughout public services there are professionals with all kinds of information and concerns about what is not working and ideas for improvement. But in the current system they have nowhere to go, no one who will listen. In the end the silent state doesn’t protect them, it slowly destroys their pride in their jobs and eventually their spirit to do good.

Public servants should be given the power over their own jobs and their accountability should be directly to the people, not to bureaucrats. Many currently have to sign confidentiality agreements, gagging them from speaking directly to the public in whose name and expense they are supposedly working. While they are silenced the top bureaucrats, such as Permanent Secretaries and deputy and undersecretaries, are not just implementing the decisions of ministers but taking the initiative in vast swathes of policymaking. Yet because of the quaint tradition of ministerial accountability and the convention on bureaucratic anonymity they are exempt from any kind of public accountability. Even at the lower level, there are important decisions being made and the public have a right to know who is making these decisions, particularly when they so directly affect their lives.

A system of named identification and direct accountability gives power back to the professionals. We don’t need more targets or more bureaucratic inspectorates. We need knowledge, the raw data held inside our public services, to be given back to us.

Heather's latest book, The Revolution will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, is now available.

Read more:
Anodyne Anonymity, by Cory Doctorow
Screenwipe on anonymous sourcing
Everything tagged Journalism at Boing Boing

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

16 Responses to “A fatal lack of accountability”

  1. Paul Renault says:

    THIS!
    (in 37.5 point type!)

  2. Shinkuhadoken says:

    A spokesperson for this account has been reported as saying they approve of this article. The source asked for their identity to be withheld since this act of approval is not yet official. Pundits for the opposing view could not be reached for comment.

    • therealguyfaux says:

      Then there’s the version where the Minister/MP has given the reporter the story but does not want any quotes attributed lest they are not exactly the same as the talking points in the press release– “When reached for comment, the Minister’s/MP’s office indicated that an official statement was forthcoming which would address all questions as to what the Minister/MP will officially announce, which statement was subsequently released and contained a more detailed version than that story which was circulating in Westminster upon which we based our initial reporting.”  Here, the staffer isn’t being anonymised, really, since it isn’t really the staffer tipping off the reporter, it’s the politician who is doing it and who will stand by whatever the press release contains.  It is just that because everybody expects that nobody ever puts a name to anything, that keeps any names from being used in this scenario, even though there is in theory nothing to hide, and it is just news management.

    • therealguyfaux says:

      Then there’s the version where the Minister/MP has given the reporter the story but does not want any quotes attributed lest they are not exactly the same as the talking points in the press release– “When reached for comment, the Minister’s/MP’s office indicated that an official statement was forthcoming which would address all questions as to what the Minister/MP will officially announce, which statement was subsequently released and contained a more detailed version than that story which was circulating in Westminster upon which we based our initial reporting.”  Here, the staffer isn’t being anonymised, really, since it isn’t really the staffer tipping off the reporter, it’s the politician who is doing it and who will stand by whatever the press release contains.  It is just that because everybody expects that nobody ever puts a name to anything, that keeps any names from being used in this scenario, even though there is in theory nothing to hide, and it is just news management.

  3. Todd Knarr says:

    My thought:  “official” and “anonymous/unnamed” should never go together. If it’s official, then the statement should be attributed to the holder of the office whose spokesman is making the statement. The spokesman themselves should be named too, but whether or not they are the officeholder themselves should be named as the source of the statement. If the officeholder doesn’t want to be making that statement in their own name, they shouldn’t be having their spokesmen make it. That’s what it means to be a spokesman: you’re speaking on the orders of the person you work for, saying what they want said.

    And if the spokesman doesn’t want a name associated with the statement? Then it’s not official and should be treated as coming from some random janitor or something and any reporter using it in a story should be publicly ridiculed.

  4. Stuck-Record says:

    And guess who was Damian Mcbride’s best mate while he was doing all those vile briefings, bullying of journos and planting smears?
    None other than the show-boating-media-darling at the Levesden press dirty tricks inquiry. That campaigner for press decency Mr Tom ‘moral rectitude’ Watson. 

  5. OtherMichael says:

    Anonymity brings freedom, but that’s not an absolute good.

    I’m liking these longer articles on BB.

  6. googoogjoob says:

     This was really great until I got to the misuse of “begs the question” and it sort of sullied the rest of the article.

    Not because SOMEONE MAKING A WRITING ERROR devalues the arguments but because it means that a professional writer wrote it and a proofreader and/or editor okayed it.

    • travtastic says:

      Do you feel better about your day, now?

    • travtastic says:

      Do you feel better about your day, now?

    • B says:

      The use of “begs the question” in this article is by far the most common sense of that phrase. You don’t have to like it, and if you want you can ban it from your own writing or writing you choose to publish, but its not an error.

    • Someday you will learn one of the two following principles and this matter will resolve itself:

      1) “Usage is god.”
      2) “Decaf is your friend.”

      Godspeed, my chochacho.

  7. EviltheCat says:

    It’s as much a fault of journalism that this was ever allowed to happen.

  8. EviltheCat says:

    It’s as much a fault of journalism that this was ever allowed to happen.

  9. Jay Stephens says:

     It’s an error. Most grammar nerds (e.g. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/begs-the-question.aspx regard this usage as being in the “fairly common, but definitely still wrong” category. It spoilt my enjoyment of an otherwise fine aricle, too.

  10. I often wonder if these “spokespersons” are the same ones who do all the leaking that seems so prevalent today. There was a time when leaking something was done for the public good, a courageous act by a civil servant who understood the meaning of their job title and wanted to expose wrongdoing.
    Now it is done by the Government itself as a way of drip feeding bad news to lessen the impact upon the electorate by independent civil servants who shouldn’t be involved in such matters.
    The saddest part of the act is the compliance of the media who are worried they will lose access to the very leaks they are publishing.

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