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Should journalists stop relying so much on anonymous sources?

Eroding trust in traditional news, or essential to landing public interest stories? Two contributors discuss where to draw the line on unnamed voices
December 7, 2020

Yes—Alan Rusbridger

I recently read a 1,000-word political story with 19 anonymous sources. Or perhaps there were only four or five—or even (a cynic might say) only one. There was a “senior insider” (have you ever read anything attributed to a “junior insider”?) There was a “senior source”—possibly a separate person. Then two more insiders, before we met “a government source.” They were joined halfway through by a “senior No 10 source,” a plain “insider” and plain “source.” I’m not saying these people don’t exist, or aren’t who they were claimed to be. But as an innocent reader, I am being asked to take a lot on trust.

I am sure that we agree that sometimes people in public life will only say things both true and interesting if granted anonymity. We know journalists sometimes have to resort to labels so vague as to be virtually meaningless. But I wonder if a cosy pact can easily develop between the political and journalistic worlds, in which less and less is openly on the record. The attributable stuff is bland. The stuff that’s off the record is much more interesting. Some of it may even be true. But, importantly for the source, it is all deniable.

During the last election, professional journalists tweeted information (namely, that one or more Labour activists had punched a Conservative adviser) that was simply untrue. Two claimed to have been given the information by “senior Tories” or “two sources.” Both journalists later apologised, but the disinformation had served its purpose—distracting from a more important (and true) story. We never learned who’d told the unattributable porkies.

That was bad for the individuals who had been spun. But it’s bad for confidence in journalism more broadly—at the very time we need the public to trust the work of journalists. I’d love to know what you think.

No—Pippa Crerar

That was not political journalism’s finest hour. Although, as ever, these things aren’t as simple as they may seem. The Tory adviser accidentally walked into the arm of the gesticulating protestor. A video of the scene shows he looked back for a moment before walking on and—presumably—calling his bosses. The journalists should have been more sceptical of the Tory account, but did quickly recognise that and apologise.

But it would be nigh-on impossible for journalists to operate in the political jungle without anonymous sources. I rely on them every day—whether a confidential tip-off, background on a story or a quote we can publish. Often, the more controversial a story, the more you need anonymity. It’s not as though we just whack any old quote in—we do our due diligence. Is the source reliable? What is their motivation for speaking? Does their information stand up?

I was part of the team that broke the Dominic Cummings lockdown story. If we had only been able to rely upon on-the-record sources to get that over the line, I don’t think we could have published. But we were forensic in verifying sources’ claims. If you’re going to publish an explosive story, you’d better be sure that it’s right.

Which brings me to credibility. If a journalist has a track record of accurate stories, is well connected and even handed, you’re more likely to trust them—and their decision to use unattributed quotes. It’s true the use of “senior government source” has been pushed to the extreme by No 10. This allowed one or two aides to float attack lines without taking responsibility. But since the departure of Cummings and Lee Cain, the comms chief, there are signs the war against the media is easing. So I think it will be easier for us to push back against that anonymous sourcing from now on.


As anticipated, we both agree that, often, the only way to get interesting and true information is to offer anonymity. All journalists know that—and maybe viewers and readers. The question is whether this is being systemised. One Westminster journalist told me he was now almost entirely reliant on unattributable morsels from special advisers—usually via WhatsApp. No one expected to get much of value from official lobby briefings. It was the (off-the-record) post-match meetings where business was done—with, often, an even more exclusive inner circle later in the day. Does any of that sound familiar?

That seems to me like a bad system, designed to suit the political classes, who increasingly filter information anonymously through journalists knowing they won’t be held accountable. The British system, for as long as anyone can remember, has relied on arcane lobby rules. The Independent and then the Guardian tried long ago to break with it—but found it was virtually impossible to work outside the system.

You say audiences should take a view of the track record of particular journalists and decide whether to trust them. I think that’s a rather optimistic take on how things work—even I, after 40 years in the trade, am sometimes unsure who to trust. In my new book, I take the late Robert Fisk as an example of someone revered by some, wildly disbelieved by others. Even his own former paper, the Times, wrote of him in his obituary: “To some he was a hero, bravely going where others feared to tread… To others he was guilty of hysteria and distortion.” How is the average reader to decide?

Change has to begin with your generation of political journalists. How would you like to change the system for the better?


There is still a view that the lobby is some secretive society where we speak in code and have funny handshakes. I’m happy to lift the veil. Just because briefings are off camera, it doesn’t mean they’re off record, and in setting the agenda for the day, they’re helpful. In some ways they’re a leveller—everybody, from regional reporter to national editor, gets the same access. The “dark lobby” that you refer to is just an informal chat after the event: the sort of conversation that has always taken place at Westminster but was previously held in corridors and bars—and with an elite few rather than anybody who showed up.

We updated those “arcane” rules in 2018. When the Guardian and Independent boycotted lobby briefings in the 1980s it was in protest at the then non-attributable system. That is one of many things that has changed. From Bernard Ingham’s “sources close to the prime minister” through Gus O’Donnell’s “Downing Street sources” to Alastair Campbell’s “PM’s official spokesman” and now the latest iteration, “Boris Johnson’s Press Secretary” Allegra Stratton, things are heading the right way.

Yet there will always be a role for anonymous sources when it comes to some political stories. Spinners have always whispered their take to hacks. The judgment we make is what serves readers best: sharing the information, or ignoring it because of opaque sourcing? And in some cases, sources aren’t trying to obscure where information comes from because they don’t want to be accountable, but because they do want to feel protected.

I’m surprised any journalist would be “entirely reliant” on off-the-record WhatsApp messages when so much is on the record. But as you’ll know, many stories are based on layers of information—and yes, anonymous sources and gossip can form part of that. Do you think people sometimes prefer to believe the myth over the pedestrian reality?


I’m glad the lobby is, on your account, opening up. But I’d like to get back to the issue (a particularly British one, it seems to me) of a wider system of information that thrives on being anonymous and unaccountable.

When we were publishing the Edward Snowden revelationsin the US we had fruitful conversations with named officials who would willingly discuss highly classified information they knew we had.  Their UK counterpartsstruggled even to accept the documents existed. It’s the same story across the police, NHS, local government and Whitehall. Official secrets laws and non-disclosure agreements litter employment contracts. When I read US papers, I find many more named sources; a greater assumption of openness. Our culture may not welcome transparency. But I do think it’s in everyone’s interests to start pushing back and agree tougher internal guidelines.

In 2016, the New York Times toughened up its rules on anonymous sourcing after two bad mistakes. A new policy requires one of three top editors to sign off on articles that depend primarily on unnamed sources—particularly those that “hinge on a central fact.” An editor must know the identity of any unnamed source.

The paper knew that readers had grown sceptical of information whose source they could not evaluate. Editors decided anonymity would not be granted to “spin or embellishment”—just information which could not otherwise be published. “Without a named source, readers may see the Times as… carrying water for someone else’s agenda,” wrote the senior editors. “As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.” Another editor deplored “allowing unnamed government officials to… disparage their enemies without accountability.” It’s easy to say the NYT’s high-mindedness would never work here. But with the crisis of trust in news that we currently have, a little more high-mindedness may be no bad thing.

Thanks for this conversation—and keep up the great work.


I would support any move to increase accountability and transparency. But there is a big leap between what is desirable and what is possible. Your comparison with the US media is fascinating, but it underlines how different the landscape is on this side of the Atlantic: in terms of newspaper ownership and political partisanship, but also our much more crowded national media ecosystem.

If any one news outlet here were to follow the lead of the NYT and opt to use substantially more attribution, I can’t help but think their sources might dry up. And is a more collective approach realistic in such a competitive journalistic environment? Perhaps the NYT was able to capitalise on the more open culture you suggest exists in the US, but is it possible to drive that sort of cultural change across institutions here? I feel a bit weary even contemplating it!

There are more changes we can make. Reporters do need to push back. Why shouldn’t we say a “Whitehall source” is from the Ministry of Defence? Or a “government insider” is a close aide of the PM? Providing more context about sources’ political motives might also help. Organisations could have tougher guidelines—particularly when it comes to stories that could be interpreted as spin. But this would just formalise the standards that many journalists—I accept not all—follow anyway.

The issue of trust should worry us all. Earlier this year, a “No 10 source” claimed trust in the mainstream media had collapsed during the pandemic. But this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that in fact, trust in traditional media—as opposed to social media—had soared. We need to look at why and try to preserve some of it.

There was a great cartoon in the FT depicting a vicar addressing his congregation with the words: “And a source said, ‘let there be light.’” We can but hope. I look forward to reading your book!