Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When you talk to a journalist off the record how safe are you?

There is a long history of ethical journalists going to extreme lengths to protect their sources. Many a good journalist has suffered prison for contempt rather than reveal their sources.

In the Watergate scandal the editor knew the source of the story but the owner (Katie Graham) did not.

And Katie Graham would never have asked. She may have asked the editor if he was sure of his story but she would never have asked who "Deep Throat" was. As owner she appoints her editors and on really important matters has to trust them.

Ok - now look at News Corp.  The News of the World ran lots of fantastic stories. They were accurate. We now know how they were (criminally) obtained.

The journalist most certainly knew. The editor almost certainly asked and knew. But the proprietor would not normally know and it would be untoward of him to ask.

But now we have the journalist profession - led by Felix Salmon whose judgement I am more and more questioning - absolutely sure that Rupert and James Murdoch knew and are personally responsible for the hacking scandal.

It seems the journalist profession has forgotten all about the ethics of journalists. It would be inappropriate for Rupert and James Murdoch to be told the source if the journalist wanted it protected and it would be inappropriate for Rupert and James Murdoch to ask.

Of course a large slab of the journalist profession has forgotten all about journalist ethics and just assumed that the proprietor should and does know.

Of course they have. These journalists are themselves non-ethical. They have forgotten journalist ethics.

When you talk to a journalist off-the-record you have - in the past - had a reasonable basis for presuming that the off-the-record conversation will be respected. You can't assume that anymore. Journalists have forgotten the basic ethics of the profession.

There is a loss to society in the Rupert and James Murdoch scandal - but the bigger loss is not the News of the World or News Corp. The bigger loss is journalists who have made themselves into scumbags with no more ethics than the average blogger.

There is however one remaining ethical company - one where you can be assured that if you talk off-the-record the proprietor will remain ignorant.

The last ethical newspaper company is News Corp. Do not talk off-the-record to any other company.



CurmudgeonlyTroll said...

Do you think the Murdochs knew or should have known about the bribery, ie payoffs to cops for confidential dope, massive settlements of lawsuits with gag orders?

Do you think there's a pattern of willful ignorance with regard to how the news was gathered, never letting facts get in the way of a good or properly tendentious story, acting as if 'workshops from Manchester to Mumbai' are a substitute for exemplary ethical leadership from the top?

Is Murdoch is the new Kay Graham, the paragon of responsible journalistic stewardship?

john b said...

John - surely the point here is not about regular source protection - it's about payments for criminal activity. If Bob Woodward had asked Katie Graham for $10,000 in used notes (which he had intended to use to bribe policemen with), I doubt she'd have handed it over no questions asked. But Woodward wouldn't have done so, because unlike the NOTW journalists, he wasn't a crook.

This is what News International is being slated for - not for the Murdochs being unaware of their journalists' sources, which is right and proper as you say, but being or claiming to be unaware of large cash payments which turned out to be used for criminal activity.

Anonymous said...

Stick to short selling dude. You just made yourself look like a retard with that post.

John Hempton said...

No. I think it would be unethical for the proprietor to dig too far into the sources.

He should not even ask.


Anonymous said...

There was no "source" to protect in a lot of these incidents. The source was the voicemail of the targets/victims.

The technique was obviously widespread through the industry, Piers Morgan boasts about it in his book, there was thousands of incidents referred to by rival newspapers and the sheer scale of people who were hacked means large numbers of PI/journo's were assiduously dialing up voice mails every day to check new messages.

This is not protecting Deep Throat, this is all about an incredible denial that senior staff did not know of voicemail hacking.

John Hempton said...

I know there is no source. It would however be improper for Rupert Murdoch to ask what the source was.

So he has deniability.


Anonymous said...

Anyone can deny anything.... I doubt anyone actually believes either of the Murdochs or Brookes. If this had happened at my company I would be moving heaven and earth to find out what had been going on.... the blank denials are not credible in the slightest. Apparently people call Rupert when there is a crisis - well this is a crisis and he expects us to believe he didn't bother to investigate it at all?

狂猪 said...

Birds of a feather flock together!

Both the owners and the editors have low ethical and moral standards. As such, these people should expect exactly this from their dealing with each other. Anything less is naive.

The Murdochs, to rebuild their reputation, will now throw the minions that helped built their empire under the bus. This is similar to the same minions that built their career on other's pain and suffering.

Now is a game of who can out the other in a worse light.

I don't think this is a loss to society. Journalism, like any other occupation, always had it's share of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Isn't it a bit early to argue News Corp is the norm in journalism?

dd said...

John, doesn't this all rather fall down on the fact that Ben Bradlee also didn't know the identity of Deep Throat, but in the analagous case in News International, Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton and seemingly every other executive did? This wasn't a case in which confidential sources were being protected; it was one in which serving police officers were being bribed.

John Hempton said...

Yes - using the Watergate example you would expect Brooks to know the source (as Ben Bradlee knew) and you would expect Rupert NOT to know (as Katie Graham did not know).

Moreover you would expect Rupert not to ask as Katie Graham did not ask.

Nothing here saves Brooks.


Richard said...

1. There are no parallels between the Watergate scandal and the News of the World hacking scandal. The Washington Post behaved courageously and professionally. The News of the World behaved like a pack of scumbags.
2. Rupert Murdock is notorious for controlling the culture of New Corporation newspapers (as many a sacked Murdock editor could attest) so the source of ruthless disregard for principles in a Murdock paper should surprise no one.
3. An appeal to the decline in journalistic standard does not work as a defence of a proprietor. The proprietor should dictate the standard. Unfortunately, in this case I think that Rupert Murdock did.

This post isn't up to your usual standard. C-

Anonymous said...

Richard -- so the multiple illegal acts that Bernstein and Woodward committed were okay because of the results? The results being, namely, that the public hears what the FBI's sensitive and ongoing investigation was uncovering?

Dave as in Kate said...

Hi John,

I think there's a distinction here between a proprietor knowing the identity of sources - which I agree is totally inappropriate - and knowing, and indeed enforcing, the methods used by his/her journalists.

The bar on identifying sources is about avoiding a breach of confidence between hack and source. But, except in some special cases, a knowledge of newsgathering methods doesn't lead to that breach of confidence.

That's the problem here, as I see it. It was on the public record nearly a decade ago that the Screws was paying off police. In a responsible media company, that would lead to a clampdown, and I don't see anything inappropriate in a proprietor being involved in that, as long as it is applied broadly.

I remember after the David Kelly case in 2003 my then-employer sent round to all staff saying that we had to make sure all stories were double-sourced, that we stress-tested sources etc. (They haven't always held to that standard since, but that's another story...)

Anyway, good point but I do think there's a significant difference between "I didn't know the identity of sources" and "I didn't know how the news I was publishing was being put together."

Sam Jones/FT said...

Sorry - John usually you write extremely thoughtfully, but I have a few thoughts on your post:

Firstly, you seem to be conflating several very different editorial practices. An editor would ALWAYS want to know about the sourcing (but not necessarily the source) of the story. E.g. They'd want to know it came from a phone hack, but not necessarily who the PI that did it was. This is a crucial distinction. It flows from the fact that libel trials in the UK can - and do- bankrupt papers. If a journalist does not reveal his source to his/her editor, then the editor has to be VERY sure the story is solid. Besides, the 'source' for these hacking stories was the victim themselves. Not the PI.

Secondly, you're forgetting that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were editors of the NOTW/Sun at the time - not just distant executives/proprietors that could be expected to be too high up the food chain to take responsibility. RB and AC were intimates of the Murdochs. Just look at what RM did when he flew into London - and what he said. I paraphrase: 'Rebekah is my first priority'.

Thirdly - and I suppose by extension to the above point - Rupert himself calls his editors up EVERY DAY to ask what their stories are and where they come from. Of course he couldn't be expected to know about everything - to be honest I doubt he would have asked about phone hacking ever - but he is hardly a distant, uninvolved proprietor either.

Fourthly, as other commenters have pointed out, this is far from being an isolated example of criminality. Police payments were sanctioned by NI executives, Glen Mulcaire came to be involved in literally DOZENS of stories involving numerous different reporters. It was practically a systematic practice at NOTW.

Fifthly, and most importantly I think, the point here is not about the initial phone hacking itself - which happened YEARS ago - it's about how News International has dealt with things since. The question is: How did James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks react once the guardian started writing about illegal phone hacking at NI two years ago? How did they react BEFORE that to the conviction and arrest of two of NOTW's most senior reporters? They sanctioned a PR gloss that painted the misdemeanours as the work of isolated and morally corrupt individuals. THAT is the lie they are now reaping. Did Rupert know all this? As he told MPs yesterday, he was in daily contact with his son....

Sam Jones/FT

Richard said...

Yes! People should be judged by the consequences of their actions...

I don't think that the focusing on the actions of Bernstein and Woodward provides any mitigation for the actions of the New of the World journalist.
Bernstein and Woodward used illegal actions to expose the gross abuse of Presidential power. Some of us think that they did the right thing.
News of the World journalsis used illigal actions to expose the misery of powerless people to gaze of public voyeurism. Had they acted legally, they would still be scumbags.

Anonymous said...

This is the second sub-standard post in a row. Would somebody please remove the John Hempton imposter and reinstate the original JH?

John Hempton said...

You mean it is the second post in a row you have disagreed with. That is good.

But for the life of me I would be more uncomfortable with a proprietor who actively tried to find out how stories were sourced than I am with Rupert Murdoch not knowing.

Indeed Rupert Murdoch not knowing is the logical result of an ethical proprietor.

Of course the rest of the profession has forgotten that.

I am stunned to see the media profession criticizing Rupert for being ethical!


Anonymous said...

John love your blog and will continue reading, however, think you missed it on this one. There is no source but cash payments to police, illegal activity (phone hacking), obstructing justice and that is not to mention the poltical influence this individual has manged through his ownership.

All the best

Anonymous said...

John, agree entirely with your point, and think that it is important one to make.

However, it's not the act itself that is at the heart of the issue here. Once it became apparent that criminal acts we involved, NI have appeared determined to avoid anyone (internal or external) finding out what happened (ironic for a company running investigative newspapers!). Indeed, their attitude seems to have been consistently one trying to cover up the involvement of NOTW (settling claims as quickly as possible, paying the legal fees of the investigator, holding an internal enquiry that found nothing).

The senior executives seem almost to have taken a "Don't ask, don't tell" approach to the whole problem. It is an interesting question whether the rules on corporate governance have made widespread this approach to dealing with potentially explosive issues which start at a very low corporate level.

But that is, in a different way from your usage, where the Watergate analogy is very apt: the criminal act is not the big issue here, it's the extent of the cover up.

BTW: You're not long on NI, are you? ;)

But What do I Know? said...

That last sentence is an embarrassment, Mr. Hempton. I say lots of stupid things--but rarely in print, so very few people can call me on them. You are widely read and respected, so correcting that hyperbolic fillip won't be easy, but you should do it.

John Hempton said...

If what then... do you have no sense of humor?

Of course hacking phones is unethical.

Of course half of what goes on at Fox News is unethical (seriously "fair and balanced")...

But if you think it is ethical for the proprietor of a newspaper to seek information on the sources of the story then you and I differ about ethics.

And every newspaper company - relishing the chance to dance on Rupert - has said that it is ethical for the proprietor to do that and they expect that Rupert has not done that.

That Rupert has not raises him in my opinion.


Oh, and long long time readers will know that I once called News Corp the most unethical stock I have ever owned.(And I noted that I once owned HMSampoerna... look them up).


Dave as in Kate said...

Ah, come on John. Think about it like an investor.

Given the laws on defamation and breach of confidence, every time a publisher prints a story they are taking a risk. Any decent news story resembles a sort of highly contingent liability, given the possibility that someone somewhere will object and want to take legal action. As a result, a publisher will want to do whatever they can to minimise that risk, within limits of the law and basic ethics.

One standard I think they shouldn't overstep is breach of confidence. What a source tells a journalist in confidence should be kept as such, and the source should have control over how it is used. The only exception to that should be assurances the journalist provides to their editor, pre-publication lawyer, etc. I quite agree that this confidence should be kept and that the publisher shouldn't be privy to it.

But I don't understand the notion that a publisher has no right to set standards about how their news is assembled. To me, this is like a fund manager not having the right to decide how their research is done: it's taking an unnecessary risk, and I don't see how it benefits anyone.

To pluck a purely hypothetical example from the air: suppose I was running a hedge fund, let's call it Battleship; and back in 2008 an old friend tells me that Goldman Sachs looks like precisely the sort of company that some rich bloke from Nebraska should invest in.

Do I just act impulsively on the information, and open myself up to insider-trading charges? Or do I make some effort to find out how this person reached this opinion? Better still, shouldn't I have some sort of framework in place so that I only invest in a way that is legal and ethical?

Most major businesses that I know have codes of conduct for their employees, to make sure that their staff's behaviour isn't bringing the company into disrepute or, worse still, legal liabilities. I really don't see why media companies shouldn't be allowed to have the same.

John Hempton said...

The story - story after story after story - were accurate.

You got a journalist that does that you promote him - not question him.


I would expect Rupert to reward such stories - not pry into the stories.


They were accurate. Strangely the News of the World - for all its sensationalism - was consistently one of the more accurate newspapers.

And what proprietor would not respect that?


dd said...

I would expect Rupert to reward such stories - not pry into the stories.

But John, this went on for ages, into a period when James Murdoch was signing off on out-of-court settlements. Do you think a newspaper proprietor should be saying "well, the story stood up - don't know what your source was other than apparently I have to pay £700,000 to settle an illegal phone hacking lawsuit of some kind - but I don't want to know anything more about any of your other sources, that would be unethical! Oh look, some more phone hacking lawsuits just arrived!"

Anonymous said...

a nitpick... your title mentions the term 'Off the record' which means just that.

If a journalist agree to speak off the record or on background, it means not to be quoted or used as the basis for a story, but can inform further reporting. That conversation would not make someone an anonymous source.

Presumably, anonymous sources provide information "Not for attribution."

John Chew said...

I agree with John. There is nothing to distinguish bona fide legitimate leaks from criminally-obtained data thefts. Not until Schrodinger's cat gets let out of the bag. Editors should be on top of what their journos get up to and Brooks failed that test.

A lot of this Murdoch witch hunt is payback for Murdoch's less than kindly treatment of those who crossed his path over the many decades he has built News Corp up. James is being attacked in the court of public opinion more for having being a son of *that* Murdoch in his role than the exercise of his role.

I know it's Rupert being hoisted with his own petard but frankly John has made a point that the latest bout of short-sighted point-scoring is setting up free society with self-destructive precedents.

ParatrooperJJ said...

It's certainly no worse then the NYT publishing highly classified inforamtion.

Anonymous said...

"I agree with John. There is nothing to distinguish bona fide legitimate leaks from criminally-obtained data thefts. Not until Schrodinger's cat gets let out of the bag. Editors should be on top of what their journos get up to and Brooks failed that test."

This is 100% correct. One of my parents worked for CapCities news division in the 60-70s and this is exactly their response.

Michael Fowke said...

Just get the feeling a lot of left-wing journalists want Murdoch to suffer for their own reasons ...

dearieme said...

But "investigative journalism" surely almost always involves illegal or immoral acts - favours, bribes, blackmail, bullying, broken promises, lies, conspiracy....

People were not revolted by the thought that journalism is a pretty slimey business, as far as I can tell, but by the realisation that a particular victim was an abducted, presumably murdered, girl and that the paper's action could have impeded the police investigation, and could have falsely raised her parents' hopes. Once the public made its revulsion clear (some of it skilfully orchestrated by the Guardian, but much of it spontaneous, I'd think) then people started looking at the general picture. The blogger's point is, I think, that one aspect of Murdoch's behaviour meets with his approval - a pretty modest point, I'd say: why the uproar?

Jennifer said...

I have no idea what the Murdochs knew and when they knew it. None of you do. I am convinced however that this episode is being blown light years out of proportion.

Phones were hacked and bribes were paid for information. Money was not being paid to torch buildings or break legs.

As others have pointed out, there's little difference in outcome between a confidential informant volunteering priviliged information to settle a score or advance their career than there is between paying someone for facts. Yes, the former is legal because money has not exchanged hands, but the info exchanged is the same and the former informant often benefits in some way from the info given.

Finally the story has a strong whiff of the Casablanca line about being shocked that there's gambling going on. There's no doubt that non-Murdoch papers were doing exactly the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I think your post is mis-titled.

Two suggested alternative titles are:

When you talk to Scotland Yard, how safe are you?

When you use a typical (unencrypted) phone service, how safe are you?

Somehow, the ease of hacking into communications seems to have gotten lost in all of this. I find that the most appalling scandal of this entire sordid story.

David said...


I think you are off the mark. As Sam/FT pointed out, there are a number of flaws in your model of how the newspaper publisher - editor - reporter relationship works.

My brother worked for a US newspaper chain as business editor in one of their mid-sized daily publications. When he uncovered a large fraud, the corporate publisher hired lawyers to review every angle of the story before they ran it. This level of "due diligence" (if you will) has become standard in the age of killer libel suits and declining profitability from news papers in general. The publishers not only ask reporters who their sources are, they ask lawyers and private investigators to independently verify key aspects of stories.

Anonymous said...


I believe there's a difference between not asking for source in a clearly public-interest case, and hindering police investigation into a criminal conduit in cases where you cannot claim pro-bono-publico.
Or, in other words - you cannot compare Watergate with hacking into dead's girl voicemail to publish stuff on her family. Or for the newspaper to "support our troops", and hack into phones of the dead soldiers' families.
For the first one, the source should be protected, and the journalist promoted. For the second, everyone who knew should have been fired. I'd agree that the ends may justify the means, but in this case majority of the ends were dubious in extreme.
Yes, that means making moral choices - but Murdoch made one anyways (in choosing to hinder the investigation, or at least look the other way while others did so), and now carries the consequences. No power w/o responsibility.

For the record - I would not be suprised if Guardian journalist who first got this out got his story illegaly - and his source should be protected.

BK said...

OK, I've read everything so far (all 34 comments). John, as you know, I've been a big fan of your blogs for quite some time, but based on one of your earlier comments I guess you'll be pleased to know that this the first post I really have felt the need to take issue with in public.
And not for the reasons given by anyone else. As a journalist and editor with more than 15 years experience, the part I'm most disappointed with is the conclusion you've drawn: "The last ethical newspaper company is News Corp. Do not talk off-the-record to any other company."
In the Gen Y parlance of the many good young journalists I've employed - and I hope imbued with high ethical standards - my response is: WTF?
If no-one briefed us off the record - and that requires a high degree of trust on both sides - a lot of bad corporate behaviour would fly under the radar.
I've never given up a source, never will. Only rarely have I been asked the source of a story, and "I'm not telling you, so there" has been sufficient in all instances. I will ask my journalists if they are sure of the accuracy of the story, but not the source, beyond being reassured it's not plagiarism. In a few cases, stories have gone to lawyers. They don't ask for the source(s) of the story. It's the accuracy and content that matter.
Don't forget, chequebook journalism has been around and tacitly accepted by most people for a long time, esp for tabloid TV and gossip mags. So, whether or not Rupert and his editors knew the info was being obtained via backhanders is not that important in this context, it's the invasion of privacy of ordinary people that I take personal issue with. It serves no real purpose, other than cheap thrills for a day for the millions of readers - and that actually is the problem for the future of journalism.

Scott said...

Well said. A refreshingly different perspective on the issue. Food for thought.

However, I think the key is the payoffs for information. That seems to me to be where this sort of operation ceases to be journalism and becomes espionage.

Detlef Guertler said...

Great post, John. After reading and viewing so much about NotW I couldn't imagine someone adding anything new. You did - and not just anything, but a thought that should stand in the center of all the discussions about journalism and ethics.

Martin said...

Unless my reading of 'All The President's Men' is greatly mistaken, or my memory of it blurred, Kathleen Graham did ask Woodward who Deep Throat was, at a lunch she hosted for him and Ben Bradlee. Woodward recounted that he refuswed to tell her, and she approved. She may have been palying him or testing his resolve, but it is my recollection of reading that book that she did ask.

Martin said...

Re-read 'All The POresident's mem'. She asked.

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