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Press Council ducks interesting issue

By Steven | February 10, 2008

If you talk to a journalist on the basis that what you say is “not for publication” and the journalist publishes your remarks anyway, has the journalist behaved unethically? I think most people would think so. In the past, the Press Council has leaned this way, too:

… if the conditions under which the [source] agreed to be interviewed were not accepted by the newspaper, then he was entitled to withdraw his comments. In the council’s view a newspaper cannot unilaterally impose its own rules upon a member of the public while choosing to ignore any conditions he may have set.

But in a recent case, where the issue was squarely before the Press Council, it rather disingenuously avoided it. The DomPost ran a story about a developer whose “army shack” homes had riled neighbours. The story was plainly newsworthy, and the developer was, it seems, a rather unsympathetic fellow. His concerns were mostly about various alleged inaccuracies in the story, which I won’t go into here. But one of his arguments was that he agreed to talk to the reporter only on the basis that the chat was “not for publication” and any comments on the record would be in writing. (He subsequently forwarded some written material). The reporter then quoted the conversation (misquoted, according to the complainant).

The Press Council blythely concluded that there was a “difference in the recollection” of the reporter and the complainant about what was said and that it was “not in a position to rule on these matters”. As for the accuracy of the quoting, that may be so. But look at the DomPost’s argument about the “not for publication” point:

… the reporter identified herself and at no time offered any acceptance of the position that Mr Nolan’s remarks were not for publication. 

The DomPost wasn’t disputing that Nolan regarded the remarks as “off the record”. It was simply saying it never agreed to that condition (though the reporter was happy to keep listening to his remarks without informing Nolan that she may ignore it).

Point one: the Press Council should really have addressed this head-on. It was squarely raised by the complainant. It’s an important matter of principle. I know there are journalists who believe that unless they specifically and expressly agree to go off the record, then they can write what they like, even if the person they’re interviewing clearly believes the conversation is confidential. This decision can be read as supporting that view, though I’m not sure the Press Council intends it to. We really need better guidance that this.

Separate point: I think this journalistic approach is unethical, or at least will be in most cases. I think that reporting comments that have been provided on an off-the-record basis is a form of “misrepresentation, deceit or subterfuge” (Principle 9) and can only be justified where the public interest requires. There seemed to be no particular public interest in the material acquired by the deceptive conduct here.

Topics: General, Media ethics, Press Council | 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Press Council ducks interesting issue”

  1. Rob Hosking Says:
    February 10th, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t know anything about this particular case, apart from a brief scan of the Press Council decision, but I’ll just make one observation:

    You would be surprised how often someone will say ‘this isn’t for publication, but…..’ and not even draw breath to get the reporter’s agreement.

    An agreement to go off the record is just that: an agreement. It requires the assent of both parties. It’s not something that can be imposed unilaterally on the journalist.

    I agree the Press Council should have looked at this issue in more depth.

  2. Steven Says:
    February 11th, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Well, when you put it like that, sure. An agreement is an agreement. But, from the other side’s point of view, it can equally be said that information supplied off the record is just that: information supplied off the record. On that view, you don’t need agreement. (Incidentally, the law of breach of confidence probably operates this way).

    I’m not entirely sure I want to go that far. But I would say that when a journalist continues with the conversation in circumstances where the source could reasonably believe that the journalist has agreed to respect the confidence (and that will usually be the case when the journalist doesn’t say “look, I’m not prepared to go off the record here”), then it’s unethical to use the quote.

  3. ross Says:
    February 11th, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    But let’s say that the Press Council did address the issue, and found the DomPost at fault. What’s the likely punishment? The Press Council is toothless.

  4. Steven Says:
    February 11th, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    The paper is required to publish a summary of the decision criticising it. Papers hate that. Sometimes other media will report it, too. There’s also a degree of punishment in being found to have acted unethically by a panel including journalists, a judge and pillars of the community. But you’re right, there’s no power to order damages or any other penalty.

    I’m sure you won’t agree with this Ross, but in some ways, I think the Press Council is too toothy. It regards its “publish-a-summary” penalty, which arises automatically when it upholds any complaint, as a significant one, so it is loathe to uphold complaints when the breach isn’t a serious one. I’ve long thought the Press Council should have the power to uphold a complaint, and then, as a separate matter, decide whether to require the paper to publish a summary. This is the way the Broadcasting Standards Authority operates. I rather think it would mean the Press Council would uphold more complaints.

  5. ross Says:
    February 12th, 2008 at 10:07 am


    I realise that the paper is required to report a summary of the decision. But where is such a decision printed? Page 1 would be a good place.

    You mention the BSA. The fact is that the BSA can – and does – impose stiff penalties, like preventing a network from advertising. I don’t believe that merely publishing the Press Council’s decision – which the public can read online anyway – is sufficient.

    I do agree, however, that the Press Council ought to be loathe to uphold complaints when the breach isn’t serious.


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