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Who’s talking? Our little secret

Posted by jsallot under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Jeff Sallot

Reporters often have to make difficult choices about when to accept information from sources who want to remain anonymous. Whistleblowers frequently have legitimate fears about losing their jobs if they talked openly about corruption or other wrongdoing where they work.

What if the information on offer is not about criminal activity, but rather an opinion about the how the boss is doing? Maybe it is an unflattering anecdote that provides fresh insight into the character of the person who’s being talked about. Or maybe it is a political insider who is being honest and candid. Do they need anonymity?

Tough calls, sometimes.  Every case has to be considered on its own, weighing the public interest against the harm that can be done to the reputation of individuals. The political coverage in this weekend’s Globe and Mail provides case studies.

My former colleague at the Globe, Michael Valpy, came up with a fascinating nugget  involving Ian Brodie, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff in the PMO. Brodie, a political science prof, reportedly told an academic seminar at the University of Toronto last week that the Conservatives don’t have an urban strategy in the current campaign and have virtually written off fertile electoral ground in Toronto and Montreal.

Other political observers have said as much. The punch in Valpy`s story is that he’s paraphrasing  a former key insider in the Tory camp. Or is he?

 Reading further into the story, Valpy says he couldn’t actually get Brodie on the phone or online to confirm what he is reported to have told the seminar. Valpy`s sources are  three political scientists who attended Brodie’s talk. The academics are paraphrasing Brodie. This is where it can get murky.

Anyone who has attended a faculty meeting will be familiar with the academic who starts off, “I think what you are really trying to say…”  Is this what’s going on: an interpretation of what Brodie might have said? Who are these academics? Valpy doesn’t say. Nor does he say why the three felt they needed anonymity.

Jane Taber, one of the Globe’s political reporters in Ottawa, is  keeping an eye on the Liberal campaign. In a look ahead at this week in politics she uses  a number of anonymous sources –  “some Liberals,“ and “ senior Liberal strategists,“ and a “senior member of the Dion team,“ and a senior Liberal “who is close to“ Mr. Dion.

That`s a lot of  Liberals who are ready to talk about the campaign, but don`t want their names attached to their views. So what were they saying that was so hot?

They say Dion should try harder to court potential NDP and Green Party voters. He should talk about the human cost of a poor economy. Liberals think they can attack the Conservatives on their platform when it comes out this week. And one senior Liberal felt the party could still form a minority government. In Liberal circles is any of this controversial?

Taber gets one former Liberal insider on the record. She quotes Steven MacKinnon, the party’s former national director, saying Dion “needs to get the votes that are most accessible to us, which are largely on our left and not on our right.“

The best political report I saw this weekend was a profile of Stephen Harper by the Globe`s national affairs columnist, Jeff Simpson, and Ottawa bureau chief, Brian Laghi.

The journalists found five people who have known Harper for years – schoolmates, colleagues, and Calgary friends – who talked candidly and on-the-record.

Laghi and Simpson rely on anonymous sources as well. But when they do their anonymous sources actually say things that are new and interesting. What emerges is a richly detailed portrait of a complex politician.

Jeff Sallot teaches journalism at Carleton. He`s a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief and has covered nine federal elections.