February 18, 2009

Now you weren't talking to me, right?

He sees me just before I see him.
I’m trudging to the front gate of the court complex; he’s walking towards me, sandwiched by two fellow detectives. He’s chatting away with his buddies, but he’s looking in my direction. We’re only 50 odd feet or so away from each other. He’s laughing, but I can see his eyes nervously darting towards me, then away, then back. Then away again. And his pals are looking at me a bit too intently for my liking. Do they know? Have they found out? Or are they just thinking `there’s that prick’?
This is not good. I haven’t told anybody. But has he? I can feel the blood rushing to my face as the space between us is eaten up. Oh Shit. What’ll I do? Will I ignore him? Will I raise my eyebrows subtly as we pass – hoping that nobody notices? Will I just say hello? Don’t be ridiculous. Fuck, what if he says hello to me? I could just turn tail and run...He’s only 20 feet away from me now. This is tricky. Very tricky. I make the wrong decision and we’re finished. Think, for Christ’s sake, think! They’re only a few feet away now. They go quiet as they near.
Then, from somewhere, an idea: a coward’s way out.
Just a few paces before we draw level, I bend down and pretend to tie my lace. In an instant, they are past me. Nothing is said. I get up, shake the dust of my knee and walk in to court. As I enter the packed and claustrophobic Court 45 in the Bridewell complex, just across from the Four Courts, my mobile phone vibrates silently. I take it out of my pocket, look at the message: Dat ws close. Gud tinkin batman! Dose uder 2 tink ur a prik by de way. I smile to myself, happy. Relieved.
Welcome to the world of trying to keep your contacts secret.
Political reporters can be seen having lattes with their TD and spin doctor mates in Leinster House; sports stars, of all codes, are known to have their favourite hacks (or fans with typewriters as I call them when I’m drunk); business journalists go for expensive lunches with their confidantes in the best, most conspicuous, restaurants. And don’t even start me about entertainment reporters...
Crime reporters, on the other hand, ignore some of their best friends when they walk past them in the street.
You could be standing beside one of your best contacts, say in back of a courtroom, and nobody would have a clue. Absolutely nobody. In fact, by the contact’s body language, you’d think the reporter just asked him if his wife accepted all major credit cards. Contempt is one word for what's on the garda's face. Which is great. The last thing you want is any other mule looking over, putting two and two together and getting four. The more members who think the fella beside me thinks I’m a bollox, the better.
And, above all, you never name your contacts in your copy. It’s all about keeping things as vague as possible to protect your people. They could be jailed, fined and sacked if anyone found out, so you’ve got to do everything you can to keep the relationship a secret. In your copy, you’ll say sources, or insiders. You won’t even write detectives or Garda sources – you have to keep it as vague as possible.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to name every garda who give you information for your story. Look at America. Cops there are happy to tell you everything you need to know about a case. They’ll even spell out their name for you, so it goes in the paper properly. In many cases, reporters actually work out of police stations and are given the same incident reports that the local chief of police receives. Anyway, you’re not looking for something that will wreck an investigation: all you want is a few details that will give your readers the impression you actually know what you are talking about. The name of a murder victim would be nice. Or an age, even. An address would be heaven.
But this is not America. Everything is hush-hush. Everything is secret – especially the details of people who talk to us.
So we call them sources. And nobody is satisfied by that.
I got thinking about the whole issue of using the word “sources” a few weeks ago, when I was asked to speak to a meeting of the Press Council of Ireland on the subject.
There were several speakers and probably around 30 people in the room altogether. It was all on off the record, so I can’t go into detail into who said what. But I came away from the meeting on the defensive and depressed.
The impression I got from many attendees at this seminar was that when readers see the word sources in a newspaper they just don’t believe it. Many people see sources and think it’s all made up. I can understand that. There are a few reporters I have no faith in at all. I look at their pieces and ask myself why I can’t get my Garda contacts to speak in such flawless, fluent, journalese like they do?
There was one sort of row when a few people said the word sources should be used in copy where there was no official confirmation to back up the thrust of the story. So, instead of Michael O’Toole will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism, it should read Michael O’Toole will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism, sources have revealed. The argument was this: if the term sources is appended to the article, the reader will realise it has not been officially confirmed and decide to believe or disbelieve it on that basis. One person insisted that a paper should be able to write the story without any official or unofficial sourcing.
I thought that was nonsense. People need to know that what is written in the paper is confirmed officially, or not.
I use the word sources every day. If I have credibility as a reporter, people will believe that what I am writing is accurate. If I don’t, they won’t. Simple as that. If I have no credibility I am toast.
In the seminar, I was aghast when I heard how one reporter in a broadsheet newspaper was challenged by a superior about a quote attributed to a source. Incredibly, the reporter admitted to not having spoken to the source – and then said `that’s what they would have said if I had spoken to them’. Jesus Christ almighty. If a broadsheet journalist would do that, what hope is there for the rest of us?
And then I realised something. It's not about the paper, it's about the reporter. I know some great reporters who happen to work in tabloids. I know how thorough they are and I believe something when they write it. On the other hand, there are some broadhseet reporters I would not trust as far as I could throw.
Sources is an entirely unsatisfactory term. It’s the chancer journalist’s get out of jail card. They can make up what they want and put it down to sources. Everybody knows it goes on. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.
But there are people out their working their nuts off every day and promising potential and current contacts one simple thing: Nobody will know I was talking to you.
So that’s why we use the word sources. And pretend to tie our shoelaces in the street.

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