Imvume Management, the company at the centre of the Mail&Guardian’s Oilgate exposes, has focused its counterattack on the question of the paper’s sources.

It has asked the Johannesburg High Court to force the paper to disclose where the information came from. In response, M&G editor Ferial Haffajee said the paper would protect its sources.  “Journalism, globally, is facing threats to the principle of protecting confidential sources,” she said.
The argument for protecting those who supply journalists with information is well rehearsed.  If journalists are to do their job of uncovering society’s dirt, they need people to be able to speak without fear of retribution.  Prof Anton Harber, head of journalism at Wits University, wrote recently: “Time and again, whistle-blowers leak critical information to reporters only because they are promised confidentiality. If they get nervous, many will stay silent.”

The most famous example of an anonymous source was Deep Throat, whose information was at the core of the Watergate investigation that ultimately toppled a US President. 

But there is another side to the question about anonymous sources, which recently formed the focus for a discussion among editorial staff at the M&G.   Not every source is a frightened whistleblower.  There are those who hide behind confidentiality because they are pursuing their own agenda, who want a particular version of events to find its way into the public domain but don’t want to be seen to be punting it.

In the US, reporter Judith Miller has begun a jail sentence for refusing to name a source. Though it’s being held up as an example of journalists’ high principles, the case, in fact, illustrates the problem.  It turns out that the source she is protecting is Karl Rove, a high-level adviser to President George Bush.  Rove – since identified by another journalist – was leaking information in order to get back at somebody who was critical of Bush over the Iraq war. 

It was clearly a case of confidentiality being misused by a spindoctor. 

Closer to home, the saga of City Press’s report that Bulelani Ngcuka, then director of national prosecutions, had been an apartheid spy provides another example.  That dramatic and long-running story illustrates one thing above all else: how journalists can be misused by sources with an agenda. 

In the US, some major news organisations are trying to curtail the use of “off-the record” briefings by the White House.  A recent circular from several senior bureau chiefs has instructed journalists always to query the need for briefings to be off the record. One correspondent said after a meeting on the issue with the White House press secretary: “We tried to make the point that readers are sick to death of unnamed sources.”

Daniel Okrent, who has recently completed a tour of duty as the New York Times’ public editor, says the use of anonymous sources has been “the substantive issue raised most often by readers”.  He quotes a reader as saying: “Whenever I come across a phrase like ‘according to a high-ranking official,’ I translate it to mean, ‘I, the reporter, will now state my opinion and disguise it as news.’”

The M&G discussion agreed that unnamed sources are over-used at the paper and in SA journalism generally. 

The paper already has a fairly detailed policy on the issue.  Its “Journalists’ Guidelines” say that unnamed sources should be avoided “unless there is absolutely no other way to handle the story and if the story is backed by others”.  They should be used only with the approval of a more senior editor, who may require to be told – in strictest confidence – the identity of the source.   The guidelines say intelligence sources need to be handled with particular caution, since “it is their job to plant information in the paper which cannot be traced back to them”.

These are good policies, although they could be widened a little.  The caution against intelligence sources should probably be extended to spindoctors in general, and it might be worth making the point that sources should be pressured to go on the record, unless they have good reason to stay anonymous. 

A useful device, too, is to narrow down the sourcing as much as possible.  “A senior official in the Department of Labour” gives readers more information than “an informed source” – and does not threaten to expose the source.

The policies may be good, but their observance is lacking.  At the editorial discussion, the provision that section heads should approve the granting of confidentiality was greeted with surprise.

Clearly, the M&G is not going to get by without confidential sources.  One area where they are extensively used is in the reporting of ructions within parties, where people will rarely speak on the record.  Judicious use in those circumstances seems justified.

But their use could be tightened up in this and other areas. The paper would do well to remember that readers trust stories much more if they are based on clearly identifiable sourcing.

And if journalists are to guarantee confidentiality in the face of jail or other legal consequences, they’d better be sure that the promise is worth making.

* Franz Kruger serves as the Mail&Guardian's ombud. This column first appeared as The Ombud column in the paper's edition of 12 August 2005.