Disclaimer – this post was written on Friday.
The first two months of my new job at SciDev.Net have been great, more than I dared to expect. The first day ended up boozing at an Italian restaurant, and after a brief research trip to France I am now blogging from Warsaw, in Poland, where I’ve been following the climate negotiations of the UNFCCC (COP19).
I know I’ll miss the vibe of these two weeks, but I can’t stay away from London for long without being homesick. So my flight back will be bittersweet, and Sunday will mark the first day of a reflection on the profession, on my personal goals and on international politics.
For now, I want to record an interesting discussion that took place yesterday over an oversize Polish beer and a plate of salmon. During the day, the EU spokesperson showed up at the media center to brief the journalists off-the-record. Counterintuitively, I recorded the conversation, though for my own use.
Then, discussing with my new friends it turns out that one of us is firmly against the off-the-record as well as the politics of embargo on press releases. Interestingly, he maintains that the embargo is a way for PR of controlling the journalist. He also thinks that the off-the-record shouldn’t exist as if a piece of information matters it should be immediately made public.
I appreciate the beauty of the ideal, radical transparency, but I don’t really think it can work in the long term. Some information needs to remain in the background, or it could not only be damaging for the subjects involved, source and journalists, but also be ultimately misleading.
That said, of course one needs to judge case by case depending on what’s at stake, but try to think about an ugly beast such as the climate negotiations. It’s an issue that looks pretty tangled and I promise, seen from inside it is even worse. Would it be of any good to disclose every word that you hear from a politician? I think it wouldn’t improve your reporting nor the public understanding of what’s really going on.
Giving to politicians and NGOs representatives the possibility of talking freely provides you with perspective and enables you to ask critical questions.
Though skilled sources will try to feed to you the questions they want you to ask their opponents, I think that a good journalist may take advange of off-the-record information more often than not.
What do you think?