Old Habits Die Hard, Sources Say

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The case of Britainnia's Vince Foster rivals even Jayson Blair as a cautionary tale of anonymous sourcing gone horribly wrong. David Kelly was used by the BBC as an anonymous source saying that the British government "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraq to justify the war; then the Department of Defence outed Kelly, then his wrists were slit (presumably by his own hand), then the Beeb fessed up, then all sorts of media hell broke loose. So have British hacks been scared straight about sourcing? Um, guess?.

Meanwhile, citing only a listener in France, expatriated Brit Andrew Sullivan crawls into the mind of the BBC, and the reporter in question, Andrew Gilligan, and delivers some stunningly confident revelations:

His deep hostility to the war against Saddam has been his motivating force as a reporter since the conflict began. [?] The BBC, it seems to me, broadcast something they knew to be untrue for political purposes. I have one suggestion: believe not a word the BBC is reporting on Iraq right now. They cannot be trusted. They want the liberation of Iraq to fail.

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  1. Your post seemed to say that there was something inaccurate about the following statement:

    “His deep hostility to the war against Saddam has been his motivating force as a reporter since the conflict began. [?] The BBC, it seems to me, broadcast something they knew to be untrue for political purposes. I have one suggestion: believe not a word the BBC is reporting on Iraq right now. They cannot be trusted. They want the liberation of Iraq to fail.”

    “Font of objectivity” was a bit of hyperbole, but if you think that the above was strained or overreaching clearly that means you think that something other than the above is correct.

  2. I think Gilligan’s deep hostility to the war has been pretty apparent and is a reasonably inference. Certainly, he has leapt to broadcast things in the past that were damaging to the coalition side that turned out to be untrue; his sexing up of the Kelly interview fits his previous pattern to a T. I think Sullivan gives good advice – don’t believe anything the Beeb has to say about the war. They’ve been wrong in the past and have every motivation to continue distorting their reporting now.

  3. That statement appears to my literalist eyes to be unprovable. I am not comfortable asserting as *fact* the motivations of people or journalists I have not met; nor do I think the act of assigning a single (devious) groupthink to a large journalistic institution is the shortest path to the truth. In fact, I would suggest that it is the opposite, though it might have its uses in focusing passionate opinion on reasonable probabilities, such as that the BBC has an anti-war bias, or that the New York Times was more of a liberal-crusading newspaper under Howell Raines. As Ann Coulter and Michael Moore have illustrated, there is a short path between such omniscient declarations of ill intent and hyperbolic accusations of treason.

  4. That said, a cursory glance at Gilligan’s work is not very confidence-inspiring….

  5. We’ve heard it before, and we’ve been hearing it all day, but apparently, it might be real this time. CNN is reporting confirmation on Uday and Qusay’s death, MSNBC is reporting celebratory gunfire throughout parts of Iraq.

  6. Neither does a cursory glimpse at the work of Andrew Sullivan inspire much in the way of confidence. It’s kinda difficult to take his BBC slams seriously when he has such a hard time mastering the truth (here and here).

  7. Never trust a man named Gilligan …

    The suicide aside, using anonymous and unnamed sources is extremely dangerous, for a number of obvious reasons, and some not-so-obvious – an unscrupulous reporter could, indeed, exaggerate what an unnamed source told him. And what would be the unnamed source’s defense against that?

  8. Curt — I think “extremely dangerous” is a stretch; the republic manages to survive.

    A reporter who puts words in the mouths of unnamed sources will A) lose access to those sources, B) eventually draw anttention to himself by producing too many “perfect quotes” and anonymous-fueled “gotcha” stories, and C) expose himself to being embarrassed publicly by the source in question. The system is imperfect & (thankfully) informal, but I think it works. The Blair fiasco, I’d guess, has probably tightened the monitoring on anonymous sourcing by 10 or 20 percent, which I think is a good thing.

  9. Well, since the Beeb has the whole interview on tape, we should find out more soon. But as with Vincent Foster, I think it is foolish to attribute a suicide to the negative way one is treated by the press. Mr. Kelly’s wrists were going to be slashed over some event unless he received psychiatric treatment, regardless of whether he had ever been interviewed by the BBC or worked for the government.

  10. Yeah, good reasoning, because someone who spoke to Andrew Sullivan thinks that the BBC was biased against the war, they must have in fact been a font of objectivity. The hysterical left-wing anti-war bias, must have just been a figment of we conservatives’ imaginations. The BBC never, for instance, lied about the Americans taking over the Baghdad airport. Who was the reporter who lied about that exactly? hmmm

  11. Wasn’t Gilligan the guy vying for the position of Iraqi Minister of Info with Baghdad Bob? I think he was the one who reported that he was at the airport and the American reports about taking it were false (when later it was shown that he wasn’t at the airport, and the Americans had, in fact taken it). Then a day or so later, he reported that he was at the center of Baghdad and that reports about the Americans being there were false, and now no one could believe what the Americans had to say (later it was discovered that he was in a northern suburb of Baghdad, and the Americans had, in fact, arrived.)

    This guy really doesn’t have and more credibility than Blair, and that is before this Kelly fiasco. I’m not sure which way this thing will play out, but the possibility that it is the BBC, and not Blair et al., that have blood on their hands (figuratively, it does seem it was a suicide) seems increasingly likely.

  12. Eric — I guess I’m missing the part where I called the BBC a “font of objectivity.”

  13. Sorry for the mix up, my first Blair (credibility) is Jayson. My second Blair (blood on hands, maybe) is Tony.

  14. Matt Welch and Curt Warner:

    I think you’re missing the main problem with secret unnamed sources, which is precisely the reason we don’t (and shouldn’t) permit them in criminal trials – how exactly do you defend yourself from allegations with no ability to cross-examine or even know the source of reasons for some conclusion by some unnamed person?

    Far more dangerous than bad journalists are simply bad sources – if you have an axe to grind with someone, what better way to direct your attack on them then by being able to say things you don’t have to stand behind?

    This is not to say that unnamed sources are worthless – only dangerous and unreliable in such a way that we must be very warry of simply accepting something as true, or even accepting it as at all credible, merely because it was said; heck, that applies to more than just unnamed sources.

  15. Peter Worthington, a columnist at canoe.ca, has an interesting viewpoint on this item, dated 21 July, 03.

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