It has got to be the most frequent question asked in media training: “Should I ever go off the record?”
There appears to be a huge amount of confusion about what it actually means and plenty of apprehension about the consequences of telling a journalist anything in confidence.
The recent case of The Australian newspaper reporting the supposedly off-the-record comments of embattled senator, Ross Lightfoot, illustrates the potential for background briefings to go awry.
So here is a background briefing on speaking off-the-record.
Firstly what does it mean? The trouble is that it can mean two very different things. If there’s confusion about which form of off-the-record is being used, then inevitably it will end in someone’s tears – and usually not the reporter’s.
The First Meaning
Off-the-record can mean that whatever the journalist is told can be reported so long as it is not attributed to the person who said it.
This is the most common definition and is widely respected by reporters who know that it is a serious breach of their code of ethics to divulge the identity of their source or to betray the trust of that source by using information inappropriately.
If, for no other reason, journos will go to great lengths to protect their sources to maintain their own reputations and to ensure future access to information.
So usually a person speaking off-the-record is identified by a descriptor such as ‘a source,’ ‘a senior insider,’ ‘a party official’ or ‘a colleague.’ Sometimes they may be given an alias so the story has a strong narrative and the audience can identify with the source’s plight. The important thing is that the identity is not revealed.
The Second Meaning
Then there’s the other form of off-the-record. That’s when neither the identity of the source or the information they’ve passed on can be revealed. This is important when someone needs a reporter to know the context of a story but can’t reveal their identity or the actual information because it would prejudice them. This is surprisingly common.
Obviously the journalist prefers the first form of off-the-record. Disguising a source is relatively easy to do whereas finding someone else to provide inside information can be extremely tough.
So unless someone has defined what is meant by off-the-record, they can assume the journalist has understood they were happy for the information to be used so long as their identity isn’t revealed.
Whatever The Meaning: Tread With Caution
The important thing to remember is that the success of speaking off-the-record depends entirely on trust. As journos are often ranked lower than car salesmen in the honesty stakes, entrusting a career or reputation to a journo can be a big call. So no one should go off-the-record unless they actually trust the journalist concerned.
It is important to remember that whilst journalists are guided by their code of ethics this is not legally enforceable and isn’t strongly policed. And there is one important override. The public interest is considered more important that the requirement to protect an individual’s anonymity.
That’s why, in the case of Senator Lightfoot, the reporter decided to breach the Senator’s trust and reveal the information he had about Lightfoot allegedly carrying cash with him into Iraq. Given the Senator reportedly told a different story, it was judged to be in the public interest to break the confidence of speaking off-the-record.
Occasionally breaching off-the-record confidences can be considered an important democratic safety valve. For example, Ronald Reagan’s famous “we begin bombing in five minutes” quip was a case of the media breaching an off-the-record confidence for the greater public good.
The Golden Rule
Always assume, if you are near a journalist, camera or microphone, that you are on-the-record and if you don’t want to see it, hear it or read it, then don’t say it.
Do this and you’ll know for sure that whatever you say, whether it is a background briefing or an on-the-record comment, you won’t land in more trouble than you can handle.