A Guardian writer was recently seeking an interview with a well-known author via email. In his first email the journalist identified himself and explained why he wanted to talk to her. Although she was reluctant at first, there was an email exchange between her and the journalist. Towards the end of the third email the author wrote: “These emails, btw, are confidential… just so’s you know.”
Therein lies a dilemma. At what stage is it reasonable to tell a journalist to whom you have been speaking or emailing that it’s all confidential and not for use? What should the journalist do?
In this case the pair came to an amicable agreement about what could and could not be used. But if they hadn’t, would it have been reasonable for the journalist to use any or all of the material obtained from the email exchange? What to do in the event of such requests is not an issue covered in the Guardian’s editorial guidelines, and it is not directly addressed in the Press Complaints Commission‘s editors’ code of practice.
A recent adjudication by the PCC involved a farmer’s wife who complained after she was quoted in the Dorking Advertiser. A reporter called her home to discuss the theft of industrial hemp in the area. He identified himself and she talked to him, but told him to call back and speak to her husband. The reporter said she did not say she wished to be neither quoted nor named. When her quotes appeared she complained to the PCC on the grounds of accuracy (clause 1) and invasion of privacy (clause 3). The PCC found that there had been no breach of the code: “In terms of the complainant being unaware that the journalist would quote her, the commission made clear that it has previously issued guidance in this area which states that people should be aware that if they speak to a journalist and do not categorically state that the conversation is ‘off the record’, it may well be regarded as ‘on the record’.
“In this instance, the reporter had not informed the complainant that he intended to quote her but, equally, the complainant – while making clear that another individual may be better placed to comment – had not stated that she had no wish to be quoted.”
Sam Blackledge, the reporter, writing on the Guardian’s website, expressed the wider issue: “The case raises an interesting point about who holds the power in exchanges between journalists and sources. If a reporter calls you and tells you he is working on a story about a particular issue, should he be required to ask your consent before publishing your comments? Or is the burden on the subject to make it clear that the conversation is ‘off the record’.”
In the exchange between the Guardian journalist and the author, there was a clear request from the interviewee part way through the process. But it can be that a reporter gets a call hours – or even a day or so – after an interview asking for some or all of the unpublished interview to be scrapped.
(Of course this can also happen after an article is published, perhaps years after – when it is sometimes known as “source remorse”. The Guardian’s deletions policy is robust in this area: “So-called ‘source remorse’ is not a sufficient reason to remove. Just because someone has thought better of something he or she said in full awareness of publication is not enough. What they said at the time is part of the story of events and thus an important part of the record.”)
If the interview has been gained in a legitimate fashion, clearly there is no regulatory problem with publishing. In the past many journalists would have felt entirely justified to run a story based on such material with little further thought short of evidence that the use of such quotes may endanger life and limb.
In the wake of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, readers may be looking for an entirely new approach to the power balance between journalists and the public, and the former will have to be well prepared for that debate.
This column was originally published in The Guardian on March 25, 2012.