“According to informed sources…”

An infallible resource for understanding the workings of the government — any government, anywhere — is Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay’s Yes Minister. Remember this clip?

Yes minister.jpg

I was reminded of the above exchange (which happens while Jim Hacker is attempting to plant a story to suit his personal interests) while reading this piece on the New York Times’ crackdown on the use of “anonymous sources”.

It is worth reading in full, but here is the money clip:

Our basic, longstanding criteria remain unchanged: Anonymity should be, as our stylebook entry says, “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” That standard should be taken seriously and applied rigorously. Material from anonymous sources should be “information,” not just spin or speculation. It should be “newsworthy,” not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider “reliable” — ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see The Times as vouching for the information unequivocally — or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.

We recognize that in today’s hypercompetitive news environment, the tighter guidelines below inevitably mean that we will occasionally be beaten on a story. We have no intention of reducing our urgency in getting news to our readers. But we are prepared to pay the price of losing an occasional scoop in order to protect our precious credibility.

There is another, equally valid, reason for cracking down on the use of “anonymous sources” — it has long been a license to just make shit up.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with digital media, and the pressure to produce major stories, the resulting hyper-competitiveness and all that. I first encountered the “anonymous source”, in its most lethal form, while reporting on the story of the spy scandal at ISRO for the Sunday Observer back in December 1994. Later, after the Supreme Court finally trashed the case, I wrote of tangential experiences while reporting that story. The clip relevant to the topic of anonymous sources:

Item: On my first evening there, I was sitting in the local press club, sipping a beer, waiting for a contact to meet me. At an adjoining table, a heated conversation was going on, featuring reporters of a couple of leading vernacular dailies. One reporter was telling his colleagues that he had just spoken to a member of the CBI special team investigating the case. That said CBI officer had confirmed — confirmed, mind you — that hidden assets had been seized from the homes of the two scientists implicated in the case. And so forth.

Next morning, that was the lead story in not one, but three different vernacular dailies.

There was only one problem with it. Two days earlier, the CBI had indeed landed in Thiruvanathapuram in force. And taken over the Hindustan Latex guest house there. Their first act was to surround it with a two-ring layer of protection — the outer ring composed of state police, the inner ring comprising CRPF personnel. And there was no way — believe me, I tried like hell — to get through those two rings, and get to meet any member of the CBI team.

The phone? Forget it — when I tried the HL guest house numbers, a voice informed me that the number was temporarily not in service. Later I learnt, from a senior state police officer, that the CBI had cut all existing lines, installed their own hotlines, and that no calls from the outside were being routed through.

How, then, did those “confidential sources” funnel info to the reporters?

For the better part of two months, such “stories” — each more sensational than the next — kept appearing in both the Malayalam press and the national dailies. There was not an iota of truth to any of it. And in the process, lives were destroyed — not just the lives of those supposedly involved in the spy case, but by extension of those working in ISRO at the time, all of whom were damned by association, vilified, and ostracized by the people around them (See any parallel to JNU, and by extension to universities around the country?)

I’m glad the NYT decided enough was enough. Equally, I am certain — sadly — that our media will never agree to any such norms.

PostScript: While looking for the links to my two stories above, I found this: Shekhar Gupta on how India Today looked beneath the skin of the story and found the truth. From the department of cheap thrills: Gupta’s reporting was in January 1995. Mine, from December 1994. (Sorry — just couldn’t resist that.)

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