On the eve of the historic two day strike this week by junior doctors, the BBC reported that a “government source” had said that the real aim of the junior doctors was to bring down the government. Unsurprisingly, the doctors’ leaders angrily rejected this very damaging allegation.
The BBC should never have broadcast it, when citing an anonymous source. If David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt or anybody else within the government wanted to make the allegation, they should have been required to do so on the record.
By reporting in the way it did, the BBC let the government have the advantage of getting the allegation aired - and some mud is always likely to stick - while at the same time not needing to provide any evidence to support it and furthermore being able to deny that they were ever behind the allegation at all, should that turn out to be necessary. Put bluntly, the BBC allowed itself to be used by the government.
Anonymous sources can be crucial to the very finest journalism, where the information obtained is important and the person giving it to a journalist would be in some danger if it were known they were doing so. The danger may take a number of forms including losing their job or going to prison. The Watergate journalists, famously, had Deep Throat as an anonymous source. Anonymity is designed to protect the source.
What possible justification can there be for a government to hide behind anonymity?
The answer, as so often, is that this is just the way things are done in the UK. We have the ‘lobby system”, we have a system of nods and winks, which the priesthood - the politico-media elite - understand but the rest of us, mere voters, do not.
This tradition is antidemocratic and should go. Tom Paine, the great 18th century revolutionary against despotism and for democracy once said: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
It would be a small but important advance for our democracy, if the government stopped giving anonymous briefings.
The BBC should certainly stop reporting them. It must fiercely protect its independence. It must be independent of government and also be seen to be independent of government. This applies at all times but not least around politically charged event like the doctors’ strike.