A warning to media by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in his farewell speech over the use of unnamed sources has generated mixed feelings among senior journalists and commentators.
Mr Abbott said if there was one piece of advice he would give the media, it is this: “Refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to; refuse to connive at dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife”.
The use of unnamed sources is common in modern reporting, although journalists at times have come under fire for the practice.
Australian journalist and columnist for The Daily Telegraph Piers Akerman believes it is unreasonable to ask a journalist to always name their sources.
“There is no doubt that some journalists connive but it is silly to think a journalist cannot report a sentiment from a source who wishes anonymity. Reporting of the material should be placed in context in the story,” he said.
Political editor for The Australian Dennis Shanahan believes this is a grey area, but an important one to discuss.
“The key, as Abbott points out, is for journalists to make assessments about the information they are being given, and the person who is giving it to them,” he says. “This applies not only in political journalism but across the board, and can be particularly important in financial journalism.”
Yet there are times it is necessary, he says. “I believe the use of unnamed sources is essential for journalism because there are times when information cannot be made public without anonymity.”
However he cautions journalists to use unnamed sources judicially. “Where possible, the source should be identified and, of course, what they are saying needs to be corroborated.
“As Abbott also says, journalists need to make judgments as to the reasons someone is leaking information, and to assess how self-serving the leak is. The use of unnamed sources needs to be carefully considered and used sparingly.”
Political editor for The Age Michael Gordon agrees. He advises journalists to think twice before using an unnamed source. “I would say be cautious about printing claims that are unattributed,” he said.
“On the one hand they can be designed to destabilise, with the journalist doing the work of the destabiliser. On the other, they are evidence of disunity within the government, and it is in the public interest for this to be reported.”
“My view is that organisations should be careful not to give overblown coverage to unnamed sources. Clearly, Abbott’s problems went way beyond the level of dissatisfaction in Coalition ranks. He was toppled because his colleagues came to the view that his cumulative mistakes meant that victory was unlikely at the next election and that Turnbull was the best hope of re-election.”
News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt believes that anonymity makes it easier for sources to avoid repercussions, particularly those with an agenda.
“Increasingly a lot of journalists have an agenda, and when you get a political operative with an agenda, feeding material to a journalist with an agenda, then there’s very little scrutiny of the merits of the information,” he said.
“There’s a willing complicity to use it to achieve a certain effect, and then there’s a hiding of the source from any consequences, even if that material is later found to be false.”
In his speech, Mr Abbott also said that “a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery”.
Bolt agrees, and would like to offer some advice to readers. “Beware, everyone’s got an agenda, including those who claim they don’t.”