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Media

March 13, 2008

When 'Off The Record' Isn't

Mike Gilson, the editor of The Scotsman, tells Gelf why he decided to print an Obama aide's statement that Hillary Clinton is a 'monster.'

Michael Gluckstadt

When Samantha Power was interviewed by The Scotsman during a promotional tour for her new book about assassinated UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, she must have known that the interview would turn towards her other job as foreign-policy adviser for the Obama campaign. But in an unguarded moment, she uttered something about Hillary Clinton that led to her termination from the campaign and the end of what the Weekly Standard called "the most ill-starred book tour since the invention of movable type."

Mike Gilson, editor, The Scotsman
"Fundamentally, 'off the record' is a two-way agreement between the subject and the journalist; it cannot be imposed unilaterally or after the fact."

Mike Gilson, editor, The Scotsman

Here's the relevant text from Gerri Peev's article in The Scotsman.

"We f***** up in Ohio," she admitted. "In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win.

"She is a monster, too—that is off the record—she is stooping to anything," Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.

The comments caused a firestorm in the political community, because it was an example of the petty politics that Obama has claimed to hold himself above. But in the journalism committee, it set off an entirely different debate on when a statement is truly "off the record."

On one side, there were claims that the Scotsman acted dishonestly by quoting comments that its source clearly did not want to be published. On the other hand, there were the majority of informed opinions who argued (rightly, in Gelf's opinion) that an "off-the-record" conversation must be agreed upon by both parties beforehand, and not imposed after the fact.

Gelf set out to talk with the editor responsible for the piece, Mike Gilson. Gilson is an Englishman who was named editor of The Scotsman at the end of 2006. He and his fellow Brits have been keeping a keen eye on the US election, and now The Scotsman is caught up in the middle of one of the many mini-scandals that have marked this election. Below, Gelf talks to Gilson about sourcing, British newspapers, and writing for a global audience. The following interview was conducted via email, and has been edited for clarity and some Britishisms.

Gelf Magazine: Were you the editor responsible for the piece?

Mike Gilson: Yes, I was entirely responsible for the decision to run the quotes.

GM: Did you struggle with the decision to quote Power in the piece as is, and did you consider any alternatives?

MG: I think I would be lying if I said I didn't think hard about it. I was very aware that it would play big in the US (although I was surprised at the speed of events). I was also aware that The Scotsman has made very positive soundings in its [editorial pages] in support of Obama for president. Samantha Power was also clearly a talented, fascinating person, the sort of feisty intellect that campaigns/governments need. Our [editorial] the day after she was fired actually regretted her departure. However, it was really a very simple decision. Were these quotes in the public interest? Did they reveal the depth of the anger in the Obama camp at Clinton’s tactics? Were we ethically right to print them? It was yes to all of those. Remember the background hum at the time of our story was the scrap between both Democrat camps; it was getting tense. Incidentally I'd be fascinated to know whether the story really has done the Obama camp any real harm.

GM: Are you surprised by the fallout (on the journalism side not the political), from people who claim that you acted unethically by printing something your subject did not intend for publication?

MG: I think you are right to separate the politics from the journalism. Much of the howls of outrage have clearly come from people desperate for Obama to do well. That is at the emotional level and is not something I can respond to or argue with. Journalistically, I think it has raised a fascinating debate. Most commentators have been supportive, I think, although I do worry about some of the "coziness" of political journalism this seems to have revealed. Fundamentally, "off the record" is a two-way agreement between the subject and the journalist; it cannot be imposed unilaterally or after the fact and I think most journalists over here get that clearly. There is also another "contract" that we seem to have forgotten, which is that between the newspaper and its readers. We have a duty to report without fear or favor. Was there any doubt about the truth of the antipathy between the Obama camp and Clinton’s post-Ohio, as revealed by Ms. Power? Absolutely not. Had we used the words "senior Obama adviser" in the piece instead of Ms. Power, would readers have recognized the extent of the truth? I do not believe they would have. Newspapers are littered by "sources" stories; some of these are absolutely necessary to be able to get at a hidden truth, others are not. We need to make sure we understand where the line is. Incidentally, I would be slightly worried about some of the comments coming from US journalists about how they use "off the record." To say that some show a deference that is unhealthy is an understatement. I am still reeling from some of the nonsense spoken by Tucker Carlson in his interview with Gerri.

GM: Can a source ever retract something after the fact as being "off the record"?

MG: Despite what you might think, we use "off the record" virtually every day at our newspaper. My worry about retracting is, how do you make that decision? Do you make one rule for the rich or powerful who may be savvy enough to later realize they have gone too far and lean on you for a withdrawal of the quotes, and another for those innocent of the media who do not [have that power]? Incidentally, in the latter case our journalists would always make attempts to explain beforehand in much more specific ways how the interview will pan out. Ms. Power is clearly not in this category and in need of a reminder of the "rules."

GM: So we've discussed the fallout on the journalism side, but what about the political repercussions? From your view across the Atlantic, is the game of American politics too fussy about name-calling?

"What kind of leader you want, post-Bush, seems to this outsider as important as the type of healthcare you need."
MG: It's a difficult call. I think the political scene here is maybe a bit more robust but I'm no expert on the American scene. Certainly there have been brutal Parliamentary exchanges throughout history here. It helps if you lace it with wit, of course. In this case, I'm not sure if an apology and an agreement to learn lessons, together with an honest account of how upset she was at Clinton tactics in Ohio, shouldn't have sufficed. To me, the passionate, and some would say indiscriminate, tone of Ms. Power's entire comments to us were as interesting as the now infamous "monster" quote and the off-the-record sideshow it spawned.

GM: You mentioned before that your paper has shown a leaning towards Obama. While the American newspaper press strives for objective neutrality (in theory anyway), the UK press makes no such commitments. How does your coverage of American politics differ from that of American papers?

MG: While we have spoken approvingly of Obama, that is different from coming out and supporting him. I'm not sure what the value of a Scottish newspaper doing that is, anyway. Over here we do make a strenuous effort to delineate comment from news reporting, though if we campaign on an issue then we come off the fence. However, the key is that our readers understand this by the tone and stated aims of that campaign. Our coverage of the US election, which fascinates us as it does most of the world's press, has been extensive. We have largely kept it straight while reporting on the campaign itself, but have used US-based correspondents to interpret for our readers, where necessary. One thing I've noticed in British papers, though, is excellent color writing about the campaign trail, which I'm not sure is too evident in the US titles. If much of the breaking news is gravitating to websites, there would seem to be much more scope for taking newspaper readers out on the trail through the strength of feature writing.

GM: When a politically damaging gaffe in a Scottish newspaper is only a click away from American voters, the vast political world becomes a lot smaller online. The Guardian is already making noises about courting American readers. Do you see your paper writing for a more global audience? If so, how does that affect your coverage?

MG: In a sense, our audience is pretty global already. You will know the Scottish Diaspora is impressive in number, and we have many of what the tourism jargon calls "affinity Scots" logging on to us now, particularly from the US. However, they are mainly looking for news from "home" and from the Scottish perspective. I think the Guardian is being a tad optimistic if it thinks its liberal British agenda is a world platform—but good luck to them.

GM: By and large, are Scots interested only in the horse-race aspect of the American election, or are there any particular issues that resonate with them?

MG: They are interested in the character of the race, but that is not surprising when there appears to be barely a cigarette paper between the two Democratic candidates in terms of hard and fast policy. And actually, isn't the substance of this election actually about style and tone? What kind of leader you want, post-Bush, seems to this outsider as important as the type of healthcare you need.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Comments

- Media
- posted on Mar 13, 08
Dollar Brand

I still can't figure out what was so bad about that comment. Now Geraldine Ferraro. BTW, David Paterson is doubly advantaged in Ferraro's terms: he is black and blind.


Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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