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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Neil Reynolds

Beware those hidden sources Add to ...

Born in Upper Canada in 1856, son of a Tory blacksmith, John Stephen Willison quit school at 15 and - "full of ambition" - took a job as a clerk in a general store. Already inclined to a literary career, he began to write letters to newspapers, often published (befitting the journalism of the time) anonymously. In his memoir, he recalled sending his first letter (on prohibition) to the Guelph Mercury. "I expressed a weighty opinion," he said. "I forget whether I wrote under my own name or as 'Total Abstinence,' 'Pioneer,' 'Ratepayer' or 'Pro Bono Publico.' " Any of these deceits, he confessed, "would have carried much more weight than my own signature."

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Thus began Willison's illustrious career, which would make him a famous journalist, a political associate of Wilfrid Laurier and an esteemed editor of The Globe - where, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, he raised the newspaper to unprecedented prominence. Knighted by King George V in 1913, Willison held firmly to his conviction that journalists write a more honest account of things than historians. "There is much that the journalist cannot divulge," he said, "but he is less hampered by reticence than the historian by ignorance."

Willison got his start with perhaps the most innocent form of anonymous journalism, the discreetly signed letter to the editor - though it was often easy enough, in the old days, to detect malignant misuse of the subterfuge. Historically, anonymity served a legitimate protective purpose, saving writers from certain persecution, imprisonment or, indeed, death. The Bronte sisters published their first work under male noms de plume. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison printed their famous constitutional essays, subsequently published as The Federalist, under the name Publius. For 50 years, Russian dissidents communicated through clandestine samizdat ("self-published") books and papers.

We've come a long way. Journalists don't need to use phony names any more, except in the most odious countries, thanks largely to the libertarian influence of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees - when it comes to the press - that anything goes. Yet, the journalism scandal at the News of the World shows that the abuses that tripped Rupert Murdoch are very old abuses. One is the risk of factual error inherent in the use of anonymous sources. Another is the risk of insidious corruption when journalists walk the corridors of power as collegial associates of prime ministers and presidents.

Journalism is making progress, slowly, in repudiating the use of anonymous sources. USA Today effectively banned the practice 20 years ago. Now, with each scandal, come further restrictions. Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, regarded anonymous-source journalism as "the root of evil," a conviction reaffirmed at the News of the World - which doubled the evil by reducing journalism to mere hacking and hawking.

What about the risks inherent in journalism's proximity to power? In his memoir Reminiscences (1919), Willison recognized the problem. "For 36 years, I engaged in political journalism in Canada," he insisted. "My pen was my only means of support. I never bought a share of stock on margin. I never speculated in real estate. I never received payment for a service done for a political leader or for a government." Perhaps so. But the Toronto Leader, after all, did let Sir John A. Macdonald secretly write his own front-page stories, and dictate headlines as well. Didn't The Globe slip, too?

As a friend and champion of Laurier, Willison promised the Liberal leader that he would perform "any service" to help him win Ontario. To some extent, he did: During elections, he deep-sixed news stories that would have embarrassed his friend. In the end, he broke with Laurier when, as prime minister, Laurier's expectations became too great. Laurier instructed him to ease off on his campaigns for reform. "Reforms are for the Opposition," he told Willison. "It is the business of governments to stay in power."

Journalists are self-governed, and necessarily so. Journalistic abuses are not offences that can be prevented by professional associations or, heaven forbid, by governments. They can be legitimately prevented only by proprietors and publishers - whose job, as Jane Jacobs once observed, is the hardest in the world. It should get harder still. Hidden sources must go.


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