When a journalist withdraws a claim because the person that they've quoted as a source has refused to corroborate their story, what is the most common explanation?
A few weeks ago, you may recall Guido Fawkes’ difficulties on Snoozenight? I mentioned it here at the time (or later than everyone else, as is my wont), as did almost everyone else who writes about politics on their weblog.
At the climax of the interview, Guido claimed to have exposed the ‘second e-mail system’ – the one allegedly used by Downing Street insiders to say incriminating things about the ‘cash-for-honours’ enquiry in the hope of avoiding detection.
Michael White responded that the claim was unfounded*, and Guido replied that his source was the BBC’s own Nick Robinson.
The following day, following Robinson’s protests, Guido retracted.
Now, because Guido claims to be an agenda setter, any such roughing-up was bound to result in a fair degree of schadenfreude. And when you have as many vocal enemies as Guido, there is unlikely to be a shortage.
But, in the rush to gloat, are we ignoring the real culprit here? Did Guido retract because…
a) Robinson told him no such thing
b) Robinson told him ‘deniably, unattributably and in confidence’, thereby requiring a retraction from Guido.
Make your own mind up. From what I can see, Guido has since been silent on this, and we are none the wiser on the source for this (unfounded) claim. And as much as I hope that Guido is mistaken, or that he just imagined it, it just doesn’t seem that likely to me.
Now, as a licence fee payer, I hope that option b is not the case. But if Robinson were the source for this allegation (and it would not be unusual for a retraction to be based upon a refusal by a source to confirm a libellous story that they had hinted at, rather than any genuine mistake or misunderstanding), we would be left with a picture of a BBC political editor who is desperate to get a story that he can’t stand up into the public domain.
Most reporters, I would imagine, would like to hang on to seismic little snippets like the ‘second email’ story in the hope that they will be able to eventually stand it up and take the credit for breaking it. Even Andrew Gilligan didn't use a blogger in this strategic way.
Surely, only a reporter pursuing a political vendetta would do so ‘by any means necessary’, and it would be reasonable to speculate that Guido, because of his relative immunity from the libel laws (no plaintiff in their right mind pursues a ‘shoeless’ author for libel), is a useful ‘route to market’ for a political miscreant. So, surely, if you want to spread gossip, give it to Guido?
Beyond the circumstantial evidence, not a shred of proof has reached the public domain showing that Robinson did deliberately tip Guido off to this effect. But if such evidence were to be found, it could make his position at the Beeb unsustainable.
After all, because Robinson has a Tory background (though he doesn’t mention his mid-'80s role as Chairman of the Young Conservatives in the biography that he publishes on his blog), he must already be a suspect clandestine member of ‘Project Cameron.’
His idiotic sensationalism certainly makes him sound like one most of the time.
Supporters of public service broadcasting can only hope that Nick Robinson isn’t tipping Guido off though, and I expect that phone records could be examined to clear up any doubt. I would suggest that his superiors at the BBC should think about holding an internal enquiry into this – and publishing the results by way of reassurance.
We don’t want another Gilligangate, do we?