'Reliable sources claim…'
By Kate Bulkley
In the wake of Lord Hutton’s findings, Kate Bulkley asks who should set the standards of evidence for television news to break a story – judges, broadcasters, regulators, or journalists themselves?
It has always been a fact of journalism that a reporter – either print or broadcast – is only as good as his or her sources. Digging a story out of parliament or delving into tales from the world of crime are among the best examples of how reporters need information from impeccable contacts in order to break exclusive stories. And in the age of 24-hour news, exclusive is the Holy Grail.
The need for exclusives and, crucially, how to clarify the sources of such breaking stories have become major elements of the post-Hutton world of news organisations, especially those in the TV business.
Ofcom’s deputy chairman and head of the new super regulator’s Content Board, Richard Hooper, has already spoken out about how the regulator will be looking into what it should expect from news broadcasters. This will include issues such as levels of verification of sources, and possibly broadening its formal adjudication powers now that all the major news broadcasters – not just the BBC – are questioning their work practices and, in some cases, improving legal training for their journalists.
RSky News broadcast the story, reporting it live and beating the competition. Then the same “impeccable” source called back and told Brunt that, in fact, Dando was dead. “This time, such was the weight of the story that Martin thought he needed to check it with someone else,” recounts Sky News executive editor John Ryley. “He double-sourced it. I think it took him five minutes on the mobile, but he did it and he was absolutely sure of the news and we broke it.”eporting a story based on a so-called reliable source without any official confirmation or first-hand evidence contains an element of risk. Take the example of Sky News reporter Martin Brunt who was told before any other journalist by an “impeccable” source that BBC presenter Jill Dando had been viciously attacked at her home.
For Sky the level of sourcing and the number of sources depends on the journalist’s individual judgement, based on the size of the story and the credibility of the source. “You have to make your own assessment,” says Ryley.
He admits that the “pressure is on” Sky reporters such as political editor Adam Boulton, crime correspondent Brunt and foreign editor Tim Marshall “who inevitably get snippets of information and have to weigh them up. That is a very different skill from deciding if something on PA is right or wrong.”
Sky has not issued any new edicts on how to report a story since Hutton, but there have been informal talks about the implications of Andrew Gilligan’s story concerning the “sexed up” intelligence dossier. “By no means have we written any new [reporting] edicts, but the fallout form Hutton did make every journalist think hard about how they treat their sources,” says Ryley.
No evidence, no story
This feeling is widespread across British newsrooms. “[Hutton] has certainly reminded us that none of us can be complacent about how accurate our reporting is,” says Steve Anderson, controller of current affairs, arts and religion at ITV’s Network Centre. “We are held to account by an external regulator, but in the end you have to trust your reporters, backed up with firm evidence.”
He adds: “Everybody on the front line can see what the consequences are of embroidering a story. If you take that fatal step of saying something you can’t justify, well, we’ve seen the price you pay. So, a self-editing psychology kicks in.”
Martin Fewell, deputy editor of Channel 4 News, says: “We have looked at what Hutton said and I think we would have been mad not to ask: ‘Which of those conclusions [from the Hutton Report] apply to us?’”
Channel 4’s news is, of course, supplied by ITN whose compliance codes ensure that news broadcasters comply with Ofcom’s taste, decency, impartiality and accuracy rules. Those codes were in the process of being reviewed before Hutton reported and are due to be sent to journalists this month.
“The issue is not how many sources you’ve got, but what kind of evidence can the sources provide, like documents or some other categorical proof for a story,” says Fewell. “If anything ever came to court, it’s going to be all about the evidence. The point about the Gilligan story is that it was a pretty serious allegation whichever way you cut it. With an allegation that serious you have to ask yourself, ‘Where’s the evidence?’
“It’s not a case of ‘We’re going to do everything differently,’ but we have new journalists arriving all the time. We have some quite young and bright journalists working on important stories and the experience of our wisest journalists and our legal team must be available to them.”
Sources are entitled to protection
ITN has a tradition of having one of its legal team attend its 10am daily news conference and the news provider’s compliance team has been running legal seminars for its journalists in recent weeks.
Post-Hutton the BBC is in the midst of two internal reviews; a disciplinary review that has caused a lot of anxiety among BBC staff who fear a witch hunt and a second review examining the broader editorial lessons that might be learnt from Hutton.
Stephen Whittle, the BBC’s controller of editorial policy, says that a case must continue to be made for robust journalism in the public interest following Hutton and warns against regulators becoming heavy handed about sourcing.
“It would be an impoverishment of the right to know and freedom of information if it were to be unduly limited by either straightforward restrictions or internal editing and it would be a great pity if regulators decided to apply a higher test in this regard than the courts,” says Whittle.
“The citizen consumer, to use the Ofcom terminology, has a right to know as well as a right to choose their information sources and they have a right to know certain things that enable them to make informed judgements about the democracy of which they are a part.”
Whittle acknowledges that, after Hutton, there should be a reluctance to rely on anonymous sources, but argues: “Occasionally they are telling you important things.”
There could also be a case for restrictions on unscripted live two-ways, which was how Gilligan first aired his allegations about the government’ s Iraq dossier, according to a member of the BBC internal editorial review who wants to remain anonymous. He says: “I don’t think this kind of a restriction will destroy the editorial integrity of anybody and it is probably quite a sensible thing to do.”
At Ofcom, Hooper says the regulator is examining the policies it inherited from the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission – which insist that regulators should not entertain complaints against broadcasters from governments.
Several executives interviewed for this piece wonder if this examination is a step too far. “The whole Hutton episode was a sort of dreadful aberration on the part of almost everybody who got involved,” says Stephen Claypole, chairman of media consultancy DMA Media and broadcast news veteran. “My feeling is that the internal editorial review going on at the BBC ought to be sufficient. I’m sure that ITN, Sky and others have all checked their procedures.
“The fact is that mistakes will be made and will continue to be made. Broadcasters need to admit to them and make the necessary apologies, but more regulation is not the answer.”