Carrie Johnson and the problem with anonymous sources

8 February 2022

12:24 AM

8 February 2022

12:24 AM

The publication of extracts from a biography of Carrie Johnson this weekend is another stark reminder that we need a serious look at the over-use of anonymous sources in journalism. I first began to worry about the problem when extracts from another Lord Ashcroft biography – this time of David Cameron – were published. When I was told it included the claim that he once performed a sex act on a pig, I was sure it was a complete fabrication, not least because it was based on a single, anonymous source with nothing else to substantiate it. Seeing the prime minister’s sickened reaction confirmed this view.

The claim was deeply cynical, because those behind it knew that even though there was no proof, it would be toxic anyway. Any attempt to say the story wasn’t true would result in ‘PM denies pig sex claim’ headlines, leading some to believe there is no smoke without fire. In the end, all I could advise was that we say nothing, starving the story of any extra energy. The anonymous source did not have to account for their claims.

Used well, anonymous sources are vital to good journalism. They allow the publication of important stories that would damage or even endanger the source if their identity was revealed. But in political journalism they have become almost ubiquitous. Reading extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s biography of Carrie Johnson, I was struck by how few of the sources were on the record. Not only are many of the people not identified, their allegations appear to be based on little more than a hunch.

There are many examples, but let’s take the claim that Carrie Johnson took Boris’s phone and impersonated him to get her way. It’s a very serious allegation completely denied by Carrie. It’s attributed to a ‘campaign insider’, who could be anyone, saying:

”We’d spot the different ways (texts) were written, because the style would change…We realised Boris couldn’t have written the message because, the next day, Boris would contradict this.’

In short, the anonymous source is merely guessing about what had gone on, with no solid evidence to back up their assertion. As to the claim Boris contradicted the texts, love him or loathe him, no one would say he is known for his consistency. We don’t know if he was ever challenged by the ‘campaign insider’ about if his wife had commandeered his phone. I doubt it.

I have no idea if the story is true or not – but readers deserve higher standards of proof than this for it to be simply thrown into the public domain. Worse, the anonymous quotes were then used as the foundation of further claims to suggest Carrie is a Lady Macbeth style figure, whose scheming has stopped Boris Johnson from being a truly great Prime Minister. Others have already pointed out how ridiculous it is to defend the most powerful person in the country by saying they are a poor soul, controlled by their spouse; but more needs to be said about how these stories are sourced and the subsequent commentary is framed.

I once spoke to a leading political editor about the use of anonymous sources being out of control when I was at No. 10. They told me:

‘We just listen to what people say, write it down and put it in the paper.’

This struck me as being deeply cynical, as if the journalist was an innocent bystander, with no responsibility for ensuring comments were put in their proper context.

Some long pieces contain nothing but anonymous sources, often with no sense of the identity, seniority, or agenda of the person behind them. Those whose real purpose is often character assassination and score-settling are allowed to wear the cloak of anonymity, never being properly questioned about their motives or the truth of what they say.

In many media organisations in the United States anonymous quotes are more unusual, with journalists expected to justify to a senior editorial figure if they use one. It’s true American print journalism can be flavourless and po-faced, but we could do with applying more of that standard in this country when serious allegations are being made.

The reason is clear: public figures deserve to be held accountable; but they also deserve to be treated fairly. Allowing allegations to be made against them, with little in the way of proof makes them ingredients for the giant sausage machine of modern media, sometimes left surveying the wreckage of their lives or career for years after everyone else has moved on.

To put it another way, Carrie Johnson – and many others – are human beings who deserve more than to face unsubstantiated accusations made by those too cowardly to identify themselves. A proper debate about the over-use and credence given to anonymous sources in journalism is long overdue.

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