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Anodyne Anonymity

Beware officials who hide behind the veil—and those who let them

By Cory Doctorow - Share this article

When we think of journalists' anonymous sources, we think of the proverbial whistleblower. Company insiders, or civil servants, ready to violate their nondisclosure agreements to expose some wrongdoing, or perhaps to settle some score. On the other, sleazier, end of the scale, we might think of tipsters: a cash-strapped waiter at a restaurant who sells the story of a celebrity food-fight to a tabloid, a blabby nurse at a plastic surgery clinic who spills the beans on some captain of industry's chin-augmentation.

But the most commonly cited anonymous sources in the news today are the official, on-the-record spokespeople for corporations. And the anonymous speech that is protected by the journalists who quote them is the most bland, anodyne stuff you can imagine.

My first run-in with this was back in 1996 or 1997, when I wrote my first feature for Wired magazine, about a “dumpster diver” who harvested trash from high-tech companies' skips and resold it. After watching him make several thousand dollars out of a skip belonging to Acer America, I called them up and spoke to their head of security, who was on the line with a minder from Acer's PR company. He said something bland and reassuring about how it would cost more to sell this stuff themselves than they'd earn on it. I asked why they didn't give it to schools, and the PR minder said, “It’s something we’ll have to look into.”

I quoted both of them in the article and was shocked when Wired's fact-checker phoned me before it went to press to tell me that the PR person denied having said anything. I had her on tape and I stuck to my guns, and those perfectly innocuous words went into the article, much to her evident (and inexplicable) consternation.

PR people, both in-house and outside contractors, have adopted a gospel that holds that they themselves should never appear in an article. When I asked around about this practice, PR people defended it, saying that their success would be judged by the extent to which they were absent from the story. It's as though the odd doctrine that companies are people means that companies can't admit that they are made up of people. When a PR person says something innocuous, he is speaking ex cathedra, voice of the company embodied, which has possessed him and speaks through him, without interpretation or engagement by the person himself. He is the company's living embodiment, without name or identity.

This is a phenomenon that I run into again and again. Last year, I dug into the Times's paywall numbers, spending a week talking off and on with the senior spokesperson for the paper. At the end of our conversation, she revealed that she had only been speaking to me with the understanding that I not name her in the article. Surprised that the official, designated spokesperson for The Times would expect to remain unnamed in print, I asked if anything she'd told me was incriminating to her. No, she said, all the facts she'd relayed were “in the public domain,” and she had not violated any confidences in relaying them to me. Her job was to tell me these facts, and her job was to make sure that no one knew who had told me these facts.

More recently, I was chasing up a story BBC's insistence that Ofcom hold its report on adding DRM to high-definition digital TV in confidence. No one at the BBC's press relations office would return my phone messages, and when a press officer there responded in writing, he or she refused to disclose his or her identity. I don't even know if the emails I received came from one person or several people.

PR people are seemingly incapable of understanding why anyone would object to this. After I posted about a researcher's conclusion that T-Mobile UK was fiddling with the packets in its data network in a way that prevented secure connections, I was contacted by a representative from Nelson Bostock Communications. This person wrote on T-Mobile's behalf to ask for a phone call. Given the technical nature of the matter, I emailed back that I'd prefer a written exchange, and said that I would only communicate on the condition that it was all on the record, from a named person. The PR person replied with a fairly spin-laden answer and noted “Statement to be attributed to a T-Mobile spokesperson.” Either this person had poor reading comprehension or just couldn’t believe that someone would ask for a named person would have statements attributed to them. Indeed, when I asked about this, I got another reply with the same attribution instruction. I replied that we had nothing to say if I couldn't quote someone by name, and never heard back.

Then, when I got a lead on a story about a spot of corporate misbehavior. I asked the company for an on-the-record statement. I got one, which made it all seem rather a tempest in a teapot. Just as I was deciding not to write about this after all, I got an email from an in-house PR person at the company asking if she could talk to me “on background” about this. I replied that, as I’d stated, I was only interested in talking to named, on-the-record people, unless she or he was planning on telling me something that would get her or him fired or disciplined. That is, if she or he was going to relay official company statements in her or his capacity as a company spokesperson, I expected to be able to attribute them to her or him. She or he replied that she or he could talk if I could attribute this to “someone close to the company.” I reiterated that this wasn't something I'd do for official statements, and she or he thanked me politely and suggested some websites I could look to for clarity.

I went back to the BBC and asked if someone in the press department could speak to me, on the record, as a named person, about why no one there would speak as a named person on the record. A person who asked not to be named said, “it’s absolutely standard practice to request a quote is attributed to a spokesperson for an organisation rather than in an individual’s name. This is because it demonstrates the statement is being officially given on behalf of the organisation, as opposed to by an individual employee offering what might be their private opinion. This approach is routinely adopted by most communications teams, be they broadcasters, public sector organisations or private companies.”

When I asked if I could attribute this to the person who'd replied to my email, she or he said, “I’ve clearly articulated the BBC’s position to you, and in line with this I’ve asked that you attribute it to a BBC spokesperson.” Of course, I’d started the conversation by asking that a named person go on-the-record, but again, this seems to be an impossible request in the world of PR.

I asked whether the BBC's newsgathering guidelines had anything to say on the subject, and the anonymous person pointed me to the BBC Editorial Guidelines on Anonymity. As a set of principles for protecting the identities of whistleblowers, dissidents, and witnesses and victims of crimes, these are without flaw.

But I can't understand why they'd apply to corporate spokespeople.

News, as we all know, is governed by the Ws: Who, what, where, when and why. When you are writing up a factual, detailed account of an event, who matters every bit as much as what and the rest of it. The identity of a person who makes a statement is newsworthy and relevant. Without this fact, we are deprived of a key metric for determining credibility: identity. If a PR person says something at company “A” that turns out to have been a knowing lie, then we should be very skeptical of everything she says for companies B, C and on, throughout her employment history, unto Z.

Many people in PR start out in journalism school. When I taught at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the students intending to work in PR went to the same classes as the students who intended to become working journalists. They heard all about the importance of establishing the key facts when reporting on a story. The shock on display when a journalist asks for statements to be attributed to human beings, rather than the companies that employ them, is unconvincing and unbecoming.

Let's be clear here. I'm not talking about sticking a pad under someone’s nose at the site of an industrial accident and saying, “You work here then? Can you tell me what happened? What’s your name?” and getting that poor shocked person fired.

I'm talking about attending the press conference and asking the official spokesperson, making prepared statements on behalf of the company, what his name is. This is relevant. The reason that human beings deliver these statements is so that we'll believe them and report on them, because statements attached to people are more convincing than anonymous, unsigned missives on the company website. If we are going to give statements credence because they originate with humans, then we should know who those humans are.

Read more:
A fatal lack of accountability, by Heather Brooke
Screenwipe on anonymous sourcing
Everything tagged Journalism at Boing Boing

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