Addressing the challenge of anonymous sources in the digital age

Dr Aljosha Karim Schapals, research assistant at the Information Law and Policy Centre, reports from the launch of a new book by Eric Barendt, Emeritus Professor of Media Law at UCL, on anonymous speech in the context of literature, law and politics.

On 28 June, Professor Eric Barendt launched his new book ‘Anonymous Speech: Literature, Law and Politics’ at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS). His book critically examines the arguments for and against anonymity, which in the context of online communications draw attention to complex and important moral and legal questions.

It is on this basis that Barendt started outlining the pros and cons of anonymous speech, both online as well as offline: on the one hand, the use of pseudonyms has enabled great writers such as Jane Austen to publish anonymously and to have their privacy protected on the grounds of gender and socio-economic class considerations. Furthermore, anonymity allows writers to have their work considered solely on the basis of its merits rather than the additional ‘baggage’ that comes with being an established writer.

On the other hand, however, anonymity can be used to deceive audiences or inflict harm. Barendt stressed that anonymity on the Internet can encourage more socially disinhibited behaviour leading to hate speech, threats of rape and violence as well as cyberbullying.

A central theme in Barendt’s discussion of anonymity was the protection of journalists’ sources and whistleblowers – an angle which aligns with current research activities of the Information Law and Policy Centre.

Implementing policies and procedures which facilitate anonymous whistleblowing in the workplace is regarded as essential so that malpractice and wrongdoing can be exposed in the public interest without detrimental personal consequences. Whistleblowers should not have to fear unfair dismissal or being ostracized by their colleagues for exposing corporate wrongdoing.

English law also recognizes the value of protecting whistleblowing sources used by the media as stated in section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act (CCA) 1981, which could apply to anyone who publishes, though it usually concerns institutional media. That said, source protection is not guaranteed where the court is satisfied disclosure of the source is in “the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.”

Although source protection is regarded as vital in ensuring that sources do not remain silent and expose essential matters of public interest, not disclosing sources can also be problematic. The public is entirely dependent on the media’s assessment of the reliability and integrity of their sources which can lead to issues around accountability and verification. Journalists have to guard against sources with vested interests who provide misleading or inaccurate information.

The publication of the long-awaited Chilcot report on 6 July provides a welcome and topical context here: as evidenced in Barendt’s book, in reporting the run-up to the invasion into Iraq in 2003, both the US and UK media had based their (inaccurate) claim on the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on unnamed administration officials eager to promote the case for the invasion of Iraq.

In order not to damage public trust in the media, Barendt offers a few welcome suggestions for journalists when dealing with anonymous sources:

First, the need to verify as much information as possible through independent research as well as to corroborate this information with a second source.

Second, anonymity should be transparent – reasons would need to be given for why protecting a source’s anonymity is necessary.

Third, anonymous sources should be used sparingly and only after initial discussion with the editor in charge.

Finally, journalists should promise their source conditional anonymity, as the identity of the source could still be revealed by court order or by the journalist himself if the information turned out to be inaccurate.

Barendt’s book also discusses anonymity online, particularly on social media, where anonymity might lend itself to defamation and complicate the dispute resolution process. Given the continuous evolution of digital technology, this provides fertile ground for further research on anonymous online communications.

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