An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, April-May 2014 edition

The Readers’ Editor is an unknown position in Irish media, although it is growing in popularity in other countries, where the position may also be known as the ombudsman or people’s editor.

The job is to police ethics within the newsroom, and to deal with complaints and criticism from the public. The role is distinct from that of the Press Council or Ombudsman, who deal with complaints from members of the public directly affected by a story. By contrast, the readers’ editor can look at general complaints, for example if readers feel the newspaper was biased in its coverage of a particular story.

Photo: Garda on patrol
Garda on patrol. © Faduda

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan launched an interesting project recently, which she has dubbed “Anonywatch”, tracking anonymous sources quoted in the Gray Lady, and asking whether anonymity was justified.

“Anonymous sources and quotations sometimes have their place in Times stories – in those rare instances when there is no other way of getting crucial information,” Sullivan wrote in a blog post announcing Anonywatch.

With this in mind, a survey of one day’s Irish newspaper production was conducted on 1 April.

As might be expected, the majority of unnamed sources related to the major news story of the day, the ongoing fallout from revelations of taping in Garda stations, who knew what and when they knew it on all sides.

The Irish Independent coverage of this story is typical, quoting an unnamed Labour spokesman, and “close associates” and “associates” of former commissioner Martin Callinan in the leading story on the row. Not on person is quoted on the record in the article.

The Irish Times cites “informed sources” (it is unclear if the source is a garda or lawyer) discussing the Ian Bailey case, “sources” discussing the Cabinet meeting, and “government sources”.

In the Daily Mail’s case, there are “senior sources”, an “insider”, and “sources identified with the ex-commissioner”.

A case could be made for anonymity in some cases, and if serving police officers are talking to the press during a political row, then they may well be willing to talk only if it is off the record. But in no case is the reader told why any source is unnamed. By contrast, in the examples in the New York Times highlighted for unnecessary anonymity, the paper usually records the reason for anonymity.

However, other stories are less clear cut. Independent articles on the property tax deadline quotes “officials” and “a Revenue spokeswoman”, and unnamed spokespersons also pop up in stories about the Gateway employment scheme, Ryanair, the HSE, and the prosecution of inner city slumlords.

In fact, the first government spokesperson identified by name in the Irish Independent is not Irish at all. Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Angela Merkel, is quoted by name on the Ukrainian crisis.

The Herald has “Gardai” and “a senior source” in a story about a bomb attempt, and “an official spokesman” in a story about Dublin’s elected mayor. The Revenue spokesperson also makes an appearance.

The Mirror front page story quotes extensively from an unnamed source speculating without evidence that a bomb exploded prematurely because the perpetrator forgot to put the clock forward, before dismissing the theory on page five. Anonymity is also granted to “sources close to ex-commissioner Callinan, an auctioneer selling Titanic memorabilia, and “a source close to” a murder investigation.

The Examiner has “Garda sources”, “senior Labour sources”, and an unnamed Labour minister discussing Alan Shatter’s fortunes, but also “city officials”, and spokesmen for the tobacco industry, and the Cork Opera House. However columnist Shaun Connolly does point out that the political battle is being waged through newspapers from anonymous sources.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan is not saying that journalists should not develop confidential sources who, for valid reasons, cannot go on record.

“I’m talking here about something else: gratuitous anonymous quotations,” she wrote. “The kind that allow people to speculate, offer personal criticism or get a self-serving (often political) message out without taking any responsibility for it — or the kind that reporters use because quoting someone anonymously is so much easier. It’s also about attribution, and how unnamed sources of some worthwhile quotations are described in such a general way that it provides no real value to the reader.”

Too many sources are granted unnecessary anonymity in the Irish press. Public discourse would be better served if our media developed clear guidelines as to when people should be kept off the record.