Anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the past year will have noticed the recent boom in the use of "on condition of anonymity," "who wished not to be named" or variations on that formula. Sources, government officials, "persons" privy to corporate takeover talks -- the army of faceless and nameless individuals seems to be growing at such a rate that in future it seems reporters themselves will start using anonymity as a byline.
What lies behind this phenomenon and why does this oblique way of making information public seem to be growing in popularity?
The answers are troubling, as is the fact that the practice has failed to attract the criticism it warrants.
Not so long ago, most it not all anonymous sources were bona fide whistleblowers, individuals like Daniel Ellsberg, who during the Vietnam War leaked the Pentagon Papers; Joseph Wilson, who exposed the fabrication of intelligence in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, on the corporate side, Jeffrey Wigand, who risked it all to expose Big Tobacco's illegal "spiking" of cigarettes to increase nicotine dependence in smokers.
Back then, when anonymity actually meant something, these individuals used this means to protect themselves and their families, and often did so because they had signed confidentiality agreements. They only used anonymity as a last resort, when they had exhausted all other possible venues and felt, on moral grounds, that they needed to expose a great wrong.
The anonymous sources we encounter in the news today, on the other hand, can be just about anyone, from a military officer in Baghdad describing a battle to a government official in Washington commenting on environmental policy to "persons" in the know about a multibillion dollar takeover bid. With some exceptions, what the great majority of those sources have in common is the fact that, unlike their predecessors, none of them would face danger, retribution or imprisonment if their identity were exposed.
Two principal reason lie behind this development, and both are related to the divide between governments and the people. Although the gap between rulers and ruled has historically widened and narrowed depending on the times, it substantially expanded following the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent US-led "war on terror."
The first cause of the rise in anonymity is governments' smothering of dissenting voices, something that usually occurs whenever a country believes it faces an "existential" threat, as was the case during the Cold War and now in the the supposed age of global terrorism.
In such an environment, aside from individuals penalized for leaking classified material, it is common for open dissidents or critics of government who did not break the law to see their careers turn into a cul de sac. This is by no means a new phenomenon, as critics of the Vietnam War inside the US government would attest. But the greater reach of the electronic media today means that there are potentially more voices to be heard -- and silenced.
Consequently, dissidents in a cut-throat administration such as that of US President George W. Bush, which in its "us against them" worldview brooks no dissent, have little choice but to turn to the media. Furthermore, aware that open criticism will likely end their career, these individuals request anonymity so that their comments will hopefully not be traced back to them.
A drawback of this development, however, is that anonymity also provides an opportunity for self-made "experts" and unqualified individuals to make their views mainstream, which therefore puts a greater responsibility on the media to assess the quality of the information they receive. Without a name attached to the source, how can the public ascertain its credibility? Are the views expressed the organization's or its own? How do we know the person interviewed is not a professional propagandist under the pay of a government, or a corporation?
The second cause of the increasing reliance on anonymity is deniability. By keeping the identity of sources hidden from public view, governments and corporations divest themselves of the accountability that, under normal circumstances, comes with speaking on record.
If something is said that subsequently could prove embarrassing to a government, the latter can easily argue that the source, conveniently nameless, was in no position to speak in its name. It is little wonder that the "on condition of anonymity" is often followed by "as per government policy." The emerging trend is no accident; it is, rather, a carefully planned strategy.
Ultimately, by implementing a system whereby the information that is fed to the public comes from anonymous sources, governments and corporations are adding a layer between themselves and the people they govern. Anonymity, in turn, makes it all the more difficult for the intellectuals, those who, as Aldous Huxley put it, "are shocked by logical inconsistencies and fallacies," to dissect the information they are receiving and reach their own conclusions.
The more confused a population is about policies and the less precise the language through which it receives information, the less likely it is that people will question authority.
The troubled relationship between government and the media did not start after Sept. 11. In fact, it has a long history, one that turned into outright war at the height of the Vietnam War, when reporters refused to buy Washington's delusional optimism in its war against the Viet Cong. Some postmortems even blamed the US' defeat on the media, which, especially after the Tet offensive in 1968, supposedly turned the American public against the war. Never again, some vowed, would the media be allowed to question authority the way it had in Vietnam.
Subsequent wars therefore came with restricted zones for journalists, as during the Gulf War in 1991, or outright deniability of access by Israel in the Occupied Territories. Then came the Second Gulf War, in which "embedded" -- meaning vetted -- reporters tagged along as US forces invaded Iraq, thus ensuring they would only be exposed to what the US military wanted them to see.
In his famous essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote that "When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer ... as a result of dictatorship."
There is no question Orwell would find the "general atmosphere" today to be a bad one. Facing perceived existential threats, those in power have sought to curtail the reach of the media by adding some distance between themselves and the people.
While it would be invidious to call Western governments dictatorships of the kind Orwell was writing about, it is fair to say that in the past few years they have veered toward authoritarianism.
As new technologies emerge, the tug of war between the media and those in power will continue. For the time being, the authorities have found a new means by which to trouble the waters of an enlightened citizenry and therefore make it more difficult for people to reach their own conclusions. As a result, and until the media finds a way to cut through the veil of anonymous sources, those who seek the truth will find the journey a little more challenging.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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