Rules and Media Restraint

I’ve just come back from an event discussing the future of the UK’s Coalition Government, put on by Lexington Communications and ConservativeHome. But that’s about as much as I can say.

There are rules. This event was under one of the most famous, the Chatham House Rule, named after the offices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which everyone just calls Chatham House anyway.

The Chatham House Rule is:

Participants are free to use the information received [at the event], but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

So I sat through an interesting event but I couldn’t tweet (a problem for those of us who have got into the habit of sharing interesting things we learn) and can only mention the things the panel said at some unconnected point in the future, perhaps passing off their opinons as my own or as something I “heard someone say”.

The Chatham Hose Rule is useful, because it means everyone can speak their minds and be honest rather than having to represent the positions of their political party or organisation. People tend to keep to the Chatham House rule, at least when it comes to publication, or the system wouldn’t work. I’m sure people tell their friends what people in meetings said but you won’t usually read it in the papers.

There are rules. Journalists don’t print everything they know.

I’ve been dealing with journalists since I was a teenager – one day I’ll tell the story of my short-lived run for Mayor of London in 2000 – but haven’t been quoted or cited much, because almost all of that contact was on background or totally off the record.

When you talk to a journalist off the record, they don’t publish what you tell them, though they may use that information to go digging. When you talk on background, the journalist doesn’t quote you or cite you as a source but may use the information you give them as background information to a story they’re writing. Every time I speak to a journalist, even one who’s a friend, one of the first things I say is the status of the conversation: “this is all off the record” or “this is on background” or, very rarely, “this is attributable as a quote”

Everyone that works with the media accepts these rules, because they’re useful and they help journalists understand the stories they’re covering without being totally alienated from them. They can be abused; in politics,  anonymous briefing against colleagues lets the source damage someone’s reputation while having their own anonymity protected.

And there are other rules. The UK Government still publishes what used to be called D-Notices, official requests not to print information that could damage national security, and even though they have no legal force, UK newspapers and broadcasters still follow them.

None of these rules are absolute or formally binding. Sometimes someone will take a tape recorder to lunch and catch a Minister who thought he was off the record saying something silly. Sometimes someone says something so juicy at a Chatham House Rule event that a reporter writes it and publishes it anyway. Sometimes the journalist forgets that you agreed to speak on background and so puts a quote from you in an article that may or may not be what you actually said (this has happened to me a couple of times). But these are the rare exceptions to rules that are usually followed strictly.

And it’s interesting, because all the talk now is about injunctions and super-injunctions, privacy and libel law  – all these imposed external restrictions on the freedom of the press – but really the media is self-censoring every day, every minute, because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to do its job at all.

We bloggers and tweeters may be a less disciplined and less coherent bunch, but the rules still apply, so my thoughts on the panel tonight will have to remain private, at least until everyone’s forgotten about it altogether.