NSFW: Don't bullshit a reformed bullshitter; the off-the-record gravy train stops here

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pinocchioAs anyone who has read my critically acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book will know, I have not always been the paragon of honesty I am today.

Truth be told, in the past I have been guilty of prevarication on an Olympian scale in almost all aspects of my life. In business, in relationships, in friendships and even – during one epically drunken evening in a London pub a couple of years ago – in all three at the same time, leading to hilarious consequences, no small amount of heartache and the beginning of my journey of self-improvement. It’s a long story. You should buy it.

Given my past indiscretions, then, it’s both perfectly fitting and deliciously ironic how much I hate being lied to. Or rather, how much I hate discovering that I’ve been lied to. I really can’t put into words how furious it makes me; with the liar, the lie and with myself for believing them both. I could probably forgive you for cheating on my sister (I don’t have a sister) or running over my cat (I don’t have a cat), providing you’re honest with me about it. But the moment you lie, and I find out about it, we’re done.

So you can imagine how I felt this week when I found out I’d been lied to multiple times by not one but two separate people, regarding two different stories I was trying to report. I won’t name names on this occasion, for reasons I’ll get to, but the details are important.

The first liar presented himself to me on Monday when Lacy and I were working on a story about European music house-of-cards Spotify. Ordinarily I am more than able to resist the temptation of doing actual journalism, but a source very close to the company had reached out to me with details of their latest fundraising round and so I felt I had something uncharacteristically useful to contribute to Sarah’s solid reporting of the story. The source was willing to tell me all that he knew on the proviso that I wouldn’t quote him directly or identify him in any way. With every reason to trust him – or rather no reason not to – I agreed.

(Journalism students will have correctly determined that he was asking for a neat subset of “off the record” sourcing called the Chatham House Rule. Well done journalism students, go to the top of your irrelevant class.)

A few hours later, as is good practise when dealing with unattributable information, I spoke to another well-placed source for verification. “Here’s what I’ve heard from my source,” I said, before spelling out what my Deep Throat had told me. The second source listened intently but with a look of increasing confusion spreading across her face.

“Wait,” she said, “did you get this stuff from __________, by any chance”?

“I’m not going to talk about sources,” I said.

She laughed, for an uncomfortably long time. “Yeah, you’ve obviously been talking to __________. He does this all the time – exaggerates or out-and-out lies to reporters off the record, knowing he won’t be quoted. He thinks he’s some Machiavellian character but the truth is he’s just not very good at it.”

No. He most certainly is not.

Moving right along, and if you follow me on Twitter you can probably guess the identity of my second liar of the week. You might even have read the open letter I wrote to him on my blog, but let’s keep his name off TechCrunch just this once. Sufficed to say he’s someone with whom I’ve had numerous conversations – some on the record, others off – in which he’s told me his side of what is a very weird and very painful story of lies, betrayal and start-ups-gone-bad. In return I’d given him a fair hearing and, I thought, reported the facts in a way that was fair to all parties.

But as time went on, his version of events began to unravel. More and more independent information that I received pointed to the fact that I’d been mislead – and on a few comical occasions the liar’s new lies even began to contradict his previous ones.

I mean, seriously. Being fooled by one off the record liar in a week is unfortunate, two starts to look like carelessness. You can imagine how angry I felt.

And yet with that anger came a sudden realisation: with almost every lie I’ve ever been told professionally, the circumstances have been the same. The person telling it has always insisted on being off the record, ostensibly because the information they’re giving me is so sensitive that they would risk losing their livelihood if they were revealed as the source. But really because they are talking out of their ass with a serious agenda and don’t want to be exposed as a liar. It’s happened to me maybe fifty times, and I’m not even a real reporter.

What seems to have been forgotten in the past few years, by both sources and reporters, is that an off the record agreement is not a one-way deal which allows an interested party to spin a story without any risk that it will come back and bite them on the ass. Rather it’s a contract between two parties, designed to ensure that the truth can be told, in keeping with the public interest, without fear of oppression.

It’s a way for a source to feel safe in revealing, honestly, what they know, in return for agreement that the reporter would go to jail before identifying him or her. The reporter is agreeing to take all the heat for the story; to put their ass on the line for the source – and the price of having the reporter take that risk is total honesty. Think Mark Felt and Bob Woodward; that’s how it’s supposed to work.

And yet, until now, the big difference between the “off the record” contract and any other binding contract is that the former didn’t carry any penalties whatsoever for breach. Even if all evidence points to an anonymous source being 100% full of shit, the fact remains that the reporter has agreed in advance not to identify them. Sure, I’ll never trust either of my two liars again, but they’re still free to scamper off to another reporter and peddle the same bullshit with a decent chance it’ll be published, at least as a rumour.

Every technology and business reporter I’ve spoken to this week about the off the record problem has their own story to tell about bullshitting sources, and every single one says they don’t know what to do about it. They just consider it one of the risks of the game.

Well enough’s enough. The one-sided contract ends here.

From now on, if you tell me something off the record and I later discover that you’ve knowingly mislead me, our contract of anonymity is immediately void, for breach. That means that everything you’ve told me about the story becomes on the record, and fully attributable.

Every.

Single.

Thing.

I will call you out on your lies and I will embarrass the hell out of you, to the point that no reporter – or any other right-thinking human being – will ever believe a word you say ever again. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll also be fired. And have your sister cheated on, and your cat run over.

This new policy starts today, and over the coming days and weeks I’ll be taking my message on the road, selling the idea to every other reporter I meet. It’s time those of us who write about business and technology begin holding ourselves to the same standards we expect from any other kind of reporting, and it’s time to indict those backroom bullshitters who think that journalists are their own private press machines.

Consider yourself warned, liars. Your free ride stops here. Because God knows, if there’s one person more unwise to bullshit than a bullshitter, it’s a reformed bullshitter.

And, yes, you can absolutely quote me on that.

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