What is off the record?
It's not surprising that PRs get confused by the term 'off the record' as journalists interpret it in so many different ways
It is widely accepted among political journalists that private conversations with MPs in the Lobby are just that – private, or off the record. This gentleman’s agreement has been oiling the wheels of communication throughout the Houses of Parliament for eons.
It is why the drinking problem of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats who sadly died from an alcoholism-related haemorrhage in 2015, was never reported on, although widely known among political journalists.
Sathnam Sangera, columnist and feature writer at The Times, says this shows how we can all continue behaving as human beings rather than polished automatons. ‘I think that was a good thing, even though all the Lobby journalists would have been well aware of Kennedy’s drink problem. It shows there is a human side to journalism.’
However, sometimes a story is just too good to pass up. The Conservative party discovered this when an unnamed senior aide to David Cameron was reported by two separate newspapers as describing the UKIP element of the party as ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ back in 2013.
How do we know the story wasn’t just made up? As Roy Greenslade, media commentator at the Guardian, wrote at the time: ‘Frankly, it stretches credulity to think that two reporters from competing titles would concoct a fake story based on such a specific quote.’
The senior aide was never formally identified, but widespread speculation forced the party’s co-chair, Lord Feldman, to issue a denial that it was him. Greenslade added: ‘Even if one accepts the denials of Lord Feldman, that he didn’t say it, someone clearly did. And maybe he did anyway, and conveniently forgot he had. Or perhaps he wished to forget it.’
Examples such as ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ serve to remind communicators, and those they advise, why nobody can ever afford to rely completely on the protection of ‘off the record’. But there are other good reasons.
For one, there is no obligation on any journalist to respect or adhere to ‘off the record’ – it is done on the basis of good will.
Then there is the fact that if you ask five different journalists what ‘off the record’ actually means, you will get five different answers. In the main, British journalists view ‘off the record’ as meaning that, while they should not attribute the quote or information to the source, it does not necessarily follow that it will not be reported. Indeed, feeding information to journalists and then insisting it be disregarded altogether is frowned upon.
Off the record means unattributable. It doesn’t mean you can’t report it.
Andrew Clark, senior director at BCW, the communications and lobbying agency, and former business editor of the Observer, says: ‘There are only a few circumstances when this is appropriate. One might be, for example, for personal stuff – if, for example, somebody is seriously ill, and you’re being pestered for an explanation as to why they’ve stepped down.’
There are different layers to what ‘off the record’ means. For example, a solitary quote is different to an ‘off the record’ briefing, which is more detailed and which may or may not be reported, depending on the circumstances.
Second, some journalists take ‘off the record’ more seriously than others.
Geoff Ho, City editor at the Sunday Express, believes ‘off the record’ isn’t just nonattributable – but also that the information cannot be used unless it is also heard from a second source. ‘Off the record means you have to stand it up elsewhere, and make sure it doesn’t come back to the person who first told you about it,’ explains Ho. ‘If you agree something is off the record, you are honour-bound to keep to cannot be used unless it is also heard from a second source. There are very few rules about what you can report but this is one of the sacred ones. They are giving you something for nothing and you have got to be able to help them to help you, so you have to respect that.’
Others, including Sangera, however, say that if something is clearly in the public interest, then a request for ‘off the record’ can be disregarded.
‘I’ve always been clear, both as a journalist and a public affairs adviser, that it means unattributable,’ says Clark. ‘It does not mean you can’t use it – it means This is something that you’re likely to be interested in – but don’t attach my name to it.’
Then there is the additional notion of ‘background’. Journalists are divided on whether information given on a background basis can be reported at all, even without being attributed to a source. While Clark says ‘off the record’ and ‘background’ mean the same thing, Iain Dey, senior director at Edelman, and formerly business editor at the Sunday Times, says: ‘Off the record means unattributable. It doesn’t mean you can’t report it. Background, on the other hand, means it is just to inform you and is not for reporting or quoting.’
Simon Neville, City reporter at the Mail on Sunday, says both terms are debatable. ‘I find ‘off the record’ means it is generally something that I can make reference to but it is not attributable. Therefore, if I want to use something I will generally ask if I can use it and how they want me to attribute it – ‘sources close to’ or ‘sources in the industry’, for example. If someone tells me something and says it is absolutely not for reporting, then I would go away and find another source to back it up before I used it.’
If they get to the end of the interview and say Oh, that bit I mentioned half an hour ago, that was off the record then it’s too late
What is important is agreeing precisely what is meant by ‘off the record’ in advance of giving a quote, briefing or piece of information, as different journalists will have differing approaches. For example, Sangera says: ‘In an interview, if someone says This next bit is off the record, then I respect that and will very much follow it and I’ve never broken it. But if they get to the end of the interview and say, Oh, that bit I mentioned half an hour ago, that was off the record then it’s too late and I do not feel obliged to respect it.
‘If they tell me something and then immediately say it is off the record, then that is negotiable. In that case, if they are a human being, I will probably give them their way. If they are an idiot, however, they can forget it.’
Giving information to a journalist off the record can be a useful means of dissemination, says Clark. ‘As a rule of thumb, if you tell something to a journalist then you assume it’s going to see the light of day. I therefore advise people to use ‘off the record’ as a means to put something out there, not to keep it quiet. Off the record is used a lot in business journalism. If you are covering a hostile takeover, for example, people use off the record to brief against each other.’
There is no room for assumptions, however. Clark adds: ‘When I was covering a private equity acquisition of a restaurant chain, the CEO made a couple of comments off the record, so I reported them as ‘insiders say’ or ‘people close to the company’, and they complained and said it was a breach of trust. So I asked Why did you say it then?’
On the whole, it is not appropriate to use ‘off the record’ to keep information out of the public arena, advises Clark. The safest way to achieve such a goal is to never mention the information in the first place. Indeed, there are plenty of potential problems when it comes to going off the record. The first is that it cannot be controlled. So, even if you hold a ‘not for reporting, background’ briefing for journalists, they may well not report what is said, but the information – and who said it – is likely to trickle out, and probably be reported instead by journalists who were not at the briefing.
Peter Mandelson came a cropper in this way when he made disparaging remarks about Gordon Brown and Tony Blair back in the New Labour years, at a lunch held for female journalists. His anonymity was respected when his comments were reported by the journalists in attendance, but others who heard the comments second or third hand did not feel bound by the ‘off the record’ nature of the lunch.
As Greenslade wrote: ‘The likelihood of anyone briefing more than one journalist at a time on a potentially explosive story, while hoping to retain his or her anonymity, is virtually zero.’
Another problem with off the record is that it is easy to misunderstand what the other party actually means by it. In the US, for example, ‘off the record’ is often taken more seriously. Not only is something unattributable; it is expected the journalist will not report it.
‘I was once on the phone on a Saturday morning during the banking crisis to a head of communications at a large Wall Street bank,’ says Dey. ‘She wanted to go off the record for a time, which I agreed to. But when she heard me turn the page of my notebook, she had a huge hissy fit.’
It is, therefore, as tricky for the journalist as the source. Dey adds: ‘I think you have to use your common sense as a journalist. If someone starts blathering nervously and it is obvious they shouldn’t be telling you something, then you should take that into consideration.
‘My rule of thumb is that if someone has a drink in their hand when they are telling me something, I treat it as off the record. The broad point is to clarify up front exactly what you mean by off the record. For example, you say You can’t attribute this to me, but you can use it or You can’t report this, it is just for your information.’
If someone starts blathering nervously and it is obvious they shouldn’t be telling you something, then you should take that into consideration
Clark is equally clear with his clients. ‘If you don’t want something in coverage, you need to be clearer than simply saying ‘off the record’. You need to spell out I’ll tell you this, but on the basis that you don’t publish it.’
A further problem with off the record is that you need to be very certain of your relationship with a journalist before you can hope to rely on it. Sometimes, people make mistakes and give more information than they intend to.
Dey says: ‘Reporters may take advantage of that – it depends on the relationship. But, in my experience, if you play fair, you will get more from a relationship with a source.’
It is often in the interests of the journalist to respect a request to strike something from the record. Neville says: ‘A journalist is under no obligation to respect a request for off the record, but in this line of work, it is all about relationships.’
‘The mistake made by a lot of people less attuned to the Machiavellian ways of journalists – particularly in the business world – is that they use it to say something confidential, which they don’t want seeing the light of day,’ explains Clark.
‘This usually doesn’t make sense and it puts the reporter in a difficult position unless you have a very good relationship and know each other very well. A journalist is not your friend: they’re talking to you because they want a story.
‘ Why would you tell them if you don’t want them to use it professionally? What are they supposed to do – forget about it? Take it to their grave? More often than not, they’ll go away and try to stand it up with a second source so they can use it.’
For Sangera, there is a difference between news and feature writing. ‘A news reporter has to have ongoing relationships with sources in whatever patch they cover, so they have to be able to talk off the record. But if you are a feature writer flown in for a one-off interview, then you are less likely to be flexible about it.
‘You have to exercise judgment. If, for example, someone Asian told me they ate pork and then later came back and asked for that to be removed because their mum didn’t know about it and would be terribly upset, then obviously I would respect that.’
A journalist is not your friend: they’re talking to you because they want a story
Overall, it is not wise to rely on going off the record if you want to ensure you are not identified as the source of a piece of information.
‘When I was working in PR, I told my clients that if they want to go off the record, they should make that very clear, but they should not assume that the information won’t be used. All information will be used, whether it is on or off the record, in some way, shape or form, even if it is just used to form opinion,’ says Neville.
‘When Marc Bolland was chief executive of Marks & Spencer, a lot of people in the industry were quite scathing about him, off the record. Journalists would never identify those people but would use what they said to inform their own stories – that there was an unfavourable view of him in the sector.
He adds: ‘It is all about building relationships. Some PRs I know very well don’t even need to tell me something is off the record – I know it is. But I would not expect a CEO doing a formal interview to speak to me on that basis.’
Indeed, should public figures such as MPs and chief executives of publiclylisted corporations be able to go off the record at all?
The MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, is well known for his strident views about workers’ rights, poverty and Brexit. He also famously tells journalists he gets to know well that they can assume that everything he says to them is on the record. He says he does not believe MPs, as public servants, should ever be off the record. This seems a highly worthy position to take, particularly as ‘off the record’ can be used as a ploy to manipulate debate about a given issue.
As Clark says: ‘That’s the way politicians constantly use it – they use it to brief against each other, to signal a shift in position, to float an idea publicly or to make dire threats about what will happen if they don’t get their own way on something.’
When she was political editor at the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick wrote: ‘Off the record is criticised by some because it allows attacks to be made without accountability. Yet to most reporters, it is an essential part of freedom of speech – it affords anonymity to sources to expose wrongdoing and question those in power without fear of recrimination.’
Most journalists tend to agree with this interpretation. ‘I think you always need to be able to talk off the record,’ says Clark. ‘Building relationships is important and our media would be a lot less good if it was restricted by banning off the record. If you look at Brexit, no-one would have a clue what was going on without off the record briefings.’
Ho agrees that people, including those in positions of power, need the flexibility to be able to put out a position without it coming back to bite. ‘Off the record is an important part of the process,’ he says. ‘The flow of information is hampered if people have to be on the record all the time. We all complain about MPs being too polished and media-trained to within an inch of actually reflecting sunlight.’