No, dear government spokesperson, we aren’t talking on background

Giving statements on the record is the entire point of a press office.

A hand holds out a page of text from behind a curtain.
Halftone by alicia_mb on Freepik.
Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson

7 September 2023

In the past four months, the sonification has received two separate emails from UK government press officers containing detailed statements headed “background.” One was from a local council and the other from a large central government department. In both cases, we refused to accept the information as ‘background’ and asked for a statement from a named spokesperson.

Journalists who take information ‘on background’ agree not to reveal its source: instead, they’ll write a vague citation like “Downing Street sources said,” or simply use the information to inform subsequent reporting. Ideally, they’ll give readers a clear reason why they can’t cite a named source—usually an obvious risk that the source would otherwise lose their job, anger their community, or suffer attacks or abuse. Once a journalist promises confidentiality, their source and their peers expect them to keep it, up to and including imprisonment.

So it’s a little startling to get information presented as background from professional spokespeople, especially when they work for powerful institutions. Sadly, it’s also very common.

In November 2021, Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief at The Verge, published an editorial on the increasingly bizarre behaviour of communications professionals working for large tech companies. They had lied on background, announced their own products on background, and attempted to veil repeated policy changes by discussing them only on background. The companies, Patel wrote, “routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.”

Acceptable sourcing varies by country and by newsroom: Francesco Alberti, a Rome-based freelance journalist who spent 18 years at Bloomberg working on newswire syndication, told me sources in Japan or Russia are likely to expect more anonymity than sources in San Marino, but “there’s some common ground rules.” At Bloomberg, said Alberti, “anonymous sources were forbidden. You couldn’t run a story if it said, ‘according to a company spokesperson.’” A senior editor might grant an exception for a high-ranking source supplying sensitive information backed up by two other sources, but if you took an unnamed source at face value, you’d be “playing their game and not your game.”

The vast majority of spokespeople are incredibly helpful and we couldn’t do our job as journalists without them. Spokespeople put up with our persistent calls, run around on our behalf asking their colleagues annoying questions, and find remarkably clear answers at miraculously short notice. They deserve just as much credit as journalists do for creating the news. Sometimes, labelling something “background” is a spokesperson’s good-faith attempt to release something a little more informative than “no comment,” although it would be plainly naïve to assume that’s always the case.

Here’s a hypothetical example: if I quote Department for Transport spokesperson Jamie Rocket saying the new Glasgow buses are going to be pink and they turn out to be blue, the Department for Transport can trace the information back to Jamie, who can in turn figure out who it came from. It’s clear to everyone that someone in the Department has lied, or messed up, or both. If we’d printed “sources say the new buses will be pink,” our readers, presented with blue buses, would have had good reason to doubt the quality of our work. One arrangement protects readers’ trust in the media and holds the Department for Transport to its word; the other protects the Department for Transport.

That’s a silly example, and a lot of examples concern trivial questions—Nilay Patel claims a food delivery company once “insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings on background”—but some aren’t trivial at all. By definition, most requests for comment we send to government press officers concern questions of public interest, and some concern allegations of serious malpractice by public servants handling vast amounts of money. We believe they deserve to be taken seriously.

So, dear government spokesperson, if you send information labelled “background” to the sonification, we will ignore it and ask for an attributable statement, as we always have. If you still can’t give an attributable statement, we’ll print “declined to comment on the record.” Let’s not make this deeper than it needs to be. º


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