Downing Street Sources Temporarily Silenced

Yesterday, Peter Oborne published a characteristic scream of pain at the over-use of “Downing Street sources” by Lobby hacks. Oborne argued that the quoting of unnamed sources facilitates lying and makes hacks the hands free delivery mechanism for fake news. It is noticeable that, of late, tweeting Lobby hacks repeat anonymous threats from Downing Street sources which habitually do not eventually materialise. He pointed the finger at almost everyone from Laura Kuenssberg to Robert Peston. For hours after his piece was published, the customary tweeted insider nuggets of information were no longer dipped in the Downing Street source…

Nobody seemingly dared report anything “according to a Downing Street source”. ITV’s Paul Brand was the first to break the self-imposed embargo at teatime. His attribution was greeted by a barrage of abuse on Twitter. Twittering Lobby hacks went silent again on what Downing Street was saying…

At 10:00 pm Peston cracked, tweeting

“So here is No.10 confirming that if EU gives the requested three-month Brexit delay, Boris Johnson will ask for an immediate general election. Loads of you have poured buckets of manure on me for telling you what Downing St is thinking and saying. So you are totally at liberty to ignore this statement or disbelieve it. But it would be wholly wrong of me to withhold this from you, on the patronising assumption you cannot analyse and contextualise it.”

His tweet thread included a Whatsapp text from his undisclosed Downing Street source. He was combative (given he has made his career from repeating things he has been told by sources that is hardly surprising).

Perhaps emboldened by Pesto, at 10:05 pm Laura Kuenssberg risked tweeting “No 10 confirms tonight after the vote they’ll try to push for election if EU offers delay.*” She was greeted with tweets saying she was a Downing Street mouthpiece…

Oborne is right to say that hacks whose main journalistic asset appears to be phone numbers for spokesman really need to be less reliant on, and more careful about, re-broadcasting a line that the source would be too embarrassed to say in public. The reality is that it isn’t in the interests of hacks to open up the Lobby system or insist more often that quotes are on the record. Transparency will devalue their role because information scarcity makes their possession of a spokesman’s phone number more valuable. A start to improving and opening up the system would be to put Lobby briefings in the open and televised…

*Boris had in any case already said this publicly earlier in the day in the Commons.


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