Perhaps the telephone’s insistent ringing should have put me on my guard. Someone, it seemed to suggest, was determined to get through. In fact, it happened to be Pertie. He was calling from Dehra Dun and, certainly, his curiosity added an edge to our conversation.
“Is it possible to trust a journalist?” Pertie asked. “Can someone speak in confidence to a reporter without finding the conversation splashed all over the front page the next day?”
“What a bizarre question. Why do you ask?” Although Pertie is a natural sceptic, this seemed more nihilistic than normal. So, before I answered, I wanted to understand what had prompted the question.
“Well,” he began and I could sense he’d given the matter some thought. “I can’t believe Salman Khurshid would have spoken so candidly and critically about Rahul Gandhi if he’d known he was on the record and would be quoted the following morning. He’s a canny and suave politician and it’s unlikely he’d be so frank or drop his guard so comprehensively.”
Pertie had a point. To be honest, the same thought had also occurred to me. But who, other than Khurshid or the journalist he spoke to, knows whether the conversation was on the record?
Paradoxically, neither can claim it wasn’t. In Khurshid’s case that would be tantamount to saying he’d spoken the truth but did not want it revealed. For the journalist, it would be an admission he can’t be trusted and spoken to in confidence. Both have to ‘accept’ the conversation was meant for publication.
Khurshid, of course, can claim he was misunderstood or quoted out of context. But that’s a different issue to the one Pertie had raised. He was talking about trust, not comprehension or distortion.
“Let me put it like this,” I said, beginning a somewhat long-winded reply to the original question. “First of all, this only applies to people in positions of power or influence whose opinions or decisions count. Not to the vast majority of us who are of little interest to journalists or anyone else. But, yes, whenever they speak to a journalist, they should always assume it’s on the record. And that’s very definitely the case if he or she is interviewing them. To think they can say important things and not have them reported is simply stupid.”
“So you’re saying a politician or an industrialist or an actor can’t speak in confidence to a journalist? The journalist will always use what they say.”
“No, I’m saying if you’re speaking in confidence you need to say so before you start. And you need to get acknowledgement that the other party accepts. These things need to be clearly and fully established by both sides.”
“So you need to spell it out? It can’t be assumed or understood?” Pertie continued. “But I share confidences with loads of people and we don’t establish the terms in advance. Why should it be different with journalists?”
“Because they’re journalists! It’s as simple as that. But let me make a further point. One doesn’t speak in confidence to anyone unless one has reason to trust the person. Usually that means you’re speaking to a friend, a colleague or a business partner. Now, if a journalist falls into those categories the same rules apply. But if not, it’s even more imperative you clarify the situation before you start.”
“Right” said Pertie. “That’s as far as my trust goes. If I say anymore I’ll be reading it in Sunday Sentiments!”
The views expressed by the author are personal