Tom Kelly & Walter Mitty

To return for a moment to the saga of the two Kellys:  I find it incomprehensible that Tom Kelly, an experienced and well-regarded government spokesman and former journalist, should have allowed himself to engage in uninhibited speculation about Dr David Kelly and his possible resemblance to Walter Mitty in a “private conversation” with a journalist, without having agreed beforehand on the terms of the conversation.  When I was a public servant I had it constantly drummed into me that in any contact with the media, however casual and however apparently trustworthy the contact, it was essential to lay down clearly the basis on which one was speaking:  and that the options were strictly confined to “For attributable use” (“The Downing Street official spokesman told me today that…”),  “For unattributable use” (“A senior figure close to the government was speculating yesterday that…), and “For background, not for use” (strictly for the personal information of the journalist and not to be used either attributably or unattributably).  It was perfectly OK to stipulate that specific sentences or paragraphs of what one was saying should be on one basis and the rest on another, so long as both parties to the conversation knew and agreed in advance what terms applied to what information.  Those treacherous terms, “Off the record” and “On the record”, were formally and rightly banned as being hopelessly ambiguous and likely to lead to dire misunderstandings about what could be used and how it could be attributed.  Perhaps the rules have been relaxed since my own liberation from the Whitehall dungeons.  A pity, if so, as Tom Kelly would no doubt now agree.    I used to try to be pretty rigorous in my observance of the old rules and found that they worked well, enabling one to be usefully forthcoming in talking to reputable journalists without any serious risk of letting sensitive information leak into the public domain.  At any rate, I was never let down in that way by my journalist friends, many of whom, especially when I was serving overseas, were able to let me in on much more useful information than I was able to provide to them.

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