Mon, Dec 03, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Ask what is being hidden behind `on condition of anonymity'

By J. Michael Cole

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.

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