ON OR OFF THE RECORD?
Andrew Turnbull, the former senior civil servant who gave Gordon Brown a kicking in the FT today, is embarrassed. Not surprising, really, since he has in the past deplored civil servants who make critical comments about politicians, yet he now finds himself all over the news for accusing Gordon Brown of "Stalinism". What he meant was"Gordon is a bit of a control freak" rather than "Gordon killed millions of his political enemies": for some reason Stalinism seems to be an acceptable term in the lexicon of political criticism and is tossed around quite lightly by people who would never dream of accusing someone of fascism or being like Hitler.
Anyway, Turnbull's defence/excuse is that he thought he was speaking "off the record" but this is a dangerous game, as he has discovered. For one thing, there is confusion about what "off the record" actually means. Does it signify that your quotes will be published but attributed to, say, "a senior former civil servant", "a former colleague of the Chancellor" or "a source close to the Treasury" or similar - sometimes described as an 'unattributed quote'? Or does it mean that the quotes will not be published but the views you have expressed will find their way into the piece in the form of a sentence such as: "Some who have worked closely with the Chancellor argue that he has control-freak tendencies, with some even going so far as to accuse him of "Stalinism""? Or does it mean that the views will simply form part of the writer's own thinking in sentences such as "In some of Brown's decisions, it is possible to detect a kind of arrogance or disdain for the views of others" - the sort of thing that is sometimes described as 'background'?
The point is that journalist and subject may have completely different ideas about how "off-the-record" comments may be used. Confusion sometimes arises, too, when interviewees try to specify that some parts of an interview are off the record and others on.
In any case, "off the record" depends on trust between interviewer and interviewee. A journalist presented with a juicy quote off the record may simply decide that the story is too good to pass on and publish the quote, fully attributed. I've no idea if that is what happened in the Turnbull/FT case but I have known other instances. In the recent case of the murders of Ipswich prostitutes, the BBC discovered that it had recorded an interview with one of the main suspects. Though this seemed to have been recorded for background, rather than broadcast, the BBC took the view, once the man had been arrested, that it should put the interview on air, which added to the speculation about the man involved (who subsequently was not charged).
So going off the record, like going off piste, is a tricky business and it is for this reason that media trainers and PR people often drum into interviewees that "there is no such thing as off the record" - in other words, don't trust journalists. Good advice.
However, what the Turnbull incident also highlights is how mealy-mouthed, dull and politically correct are the pronouncements of just about everyone in public life nowadays. Having been on both sides of the fence, as a journalist and as a spokesman, I know how company PR people launder every statement to rinse it of any controversy. So when you get a genuine, unspun, reaction from a senior figure such as Turnbull, saying what he really thinks, it is refreshing but, sadly, very, very rare.