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Would you break the Chatham House rules?

If you are attending a conference on freedom of information, secrecy, truth, lies and political spin, then the last thing you expect is for the Chatham House rules to be invoked.

And, much to my astonishment, that is what happened yesterday. Could there be any greater irony?

I challenged the reason for this during the question session. I pointed out that it didn’t make sense to discuss these important issues under those restrictive conditions. I explained I wanted to write about the events on my blog without fear of being tracked down and shot for revealing previously undisclosed secrets. To me, it was as good as being gagged.

One of the speakers on stage, Prof David Edgerton, gallantly replied that I could attribute his comments to him. And I was also told that I could attribute statements made by the speakers in their outline presentation, but nothing that arose from the ensuing debate, I guess that was a compromise, .but it still presents difficulties for a journalist.

It transpired that one speaker had specifically sought the Chatham House rules – Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s best known diplomat. I later asked him the reasons why. He said he was concerned about the way his comments would be interpreted. He told me he he had requested this condition in advance.

Other speakers were not so shy, Tony Benn laughed and said the rule was “utterly disgraceful” and would be taking no notice of it, Dr Hans Blix said he wasn’t worried either, and the former Cabinet Secretary and Master of Emmanuel College, Lord Wilson of Dinton, felt no hitherto unknown secrets had been disclosed during the day’s debate. Interestingly, Lord Wilson told me he enjoys reading blogs, I would love the chance to interview him for a post.

I can understand the reasons why Chatham House rules have a role to play in certain circumstances, but felt it was not appropriate on a day when we were debating freedom of information, there was certainly no secret information to protect.

For clarification, what happens if you ignore them? Has anyone broken the Chatham House rules and faced any consequences? Is it something you would do?


18 Comments

  1. Tom, thanks. You can follow me on twitter here:
    http://twitter.com/home
    And my facebook link is top left of my site, but I don’t add many updates there. I prefer twitter.

  2. Good read Ellee,

    Perhaps I missed it, but do not see where to join your community.

    Kindest,

    Tom

  3. all you need to know about close protection you will found here…

  4. Tim Wilson

    Apologies, i mixed up two names – I meant of course Chris Edwards. Also, and remembering my manners, thanks for the blog, it’s a good read.

  5. Tim Wilson

    Let’s all keep calm shall we?

    PR people get a bad name specifically because they are perceived to lack morals and break the rules, so i can’t believe anyone is seriously suggesting you should ever break Chatham House rules, just on the basis of one situation which you found disagreeable.

    I’m sure like me you’ve organised Chatham House events in the past, which are extremely useful because otherwise some key people simply wouldn’t turn up or say anything of interest.

    Surely, if the discussion was theoretical and examining the ins and outs of spin, it’s better to have people comfortable to talk frankly about times when they themselves may have had to spin and use the facts creatively, if i can put it like that. We all know what happens when someone gets quoted out of context in the press. we also know how controversial the whole dodgy dossier/Kelly business is.

    I wonder whether any of those who said they didn’t minid it not being Chatham House merely felt pressured to do so, for fear of seeming ‘illiberal’?

    Although i would be less scathing, Chris Higham’s point that you didn’t repeat any of the ‘riveting’ content – attributable or not – did occur to me also.

  6. At a business event in Cheshire recently, the speaker, a marketing director, gave some mediumly interesting (but certainly not risque) insights into his company, but invoked CH Rules. I think that for anyone reporting on the event afterwards, the heart sinks, while others present seemed quite excited about the CH mention. Sometimes I wonder whether speakers invoke CHR just to make what they’re saying sound edgier?

  7. Welshcakes, I would agree that the Chathouse House would be desirable if a speaker was revealing secrets, if security was a problem, but that didn’t happen here. Is it too easy an option to ask for Chatham House rules?

  8. Well done for challenging the decision, Ellee. I see your point but I can also see that there could be security issues for some speakers in these dangerous times. Journalists surely have to use non-attributable sources often? What else are leaks?

  9. Chris, To further answer your comment, I think you have misunderstood my point. Certainly, if there was some sensational info I needed to write up on under Chatham House rules, I would have found other means of substantiating them, but that wasn’t the case here. The CH rules were not appropriate for this event, though I accept they may be advisable on certain occasions.

    I have some useful info for future posts which I want to develop when I have time. I think you would have enjoyed being there too.

  10. Chris, I didn’t complain, I questioned. I felt it was an interesting situation bearing in mind the theme of the day. The CH rules didn’t seem appropriate, the other speakers agreed. I thought this would be an interesting topic to debate, which has proved to be the case.

  11. Ellee, just posted on all this – you certainly stirred something up here.

  12. So, having complained about not being “allowed” to write anything, the real reason for not posting about the event is that no-one stood up and said anything interesting.

    You have permission from all but one speaker to attribute their quotes (except the Q&A, and even that might not be a restriction if you check back with the sources) on what you said above were “important issues”. But no blog post, other than a nugget from Hans Blix after the event.

    The idea that you can never use non-attrib sources anyway is laughable. With private conversations, you might need to work more to stand things up sufficiently for readers to accept it, but we’re talking about statements made at a public forum witnessed by a hundred or more people. If the information was that important, it would find its way out. And without being to use any anonymous sources, newsgathering would grind to a halt. No-one wants to use non-attrib sources, but sometimes that is your only choice. The world is not going to reshape itself around the desires of bloggers.

  13. Ellee, this is an issue of importance. I see Chris Edwards’ point but equally, how can a journalist not be expected to attribute. There is the question of bona fides here.

    I am currently gagged by a certain ‘collective responsibility’ in my work and a dim view would be taken if I blabbed. The whole question of onthe record/off the record is the eternal journalistic nightmare.

    Sourcing was what prevented Watergate coming out for so long and yet on the record produces flat boring responses of no consequence half the time. I don’t know the solution at all.

  14. Stuart, I couldn’t understand why Sir Jeremy felt he needed Chatham House rules and none of the other high profile speakers did, I was very intrigued, which is why I asked them for their views about it. Unfortunatley, nobody revealed any secrets for a good splash.

    The fact that this was an event debating freedom of information, spin, lies and truth made it all the more remarkable in my opinion, which is why I challenged it. I would have understood had the occasion been a private dinner and Sir Jeremey was going to make a speech afterwards.

  15. What touched a nerve with me is that it was Greenstock that felt he needed the ‘protection’ of Chatham House rules. His previous conduct tells me he is not someone I would trust to keep a confidence (unlike the other respectable speakers) and therefore it is more than a bit rich thinking he deserves some sort of special protection.

  16. Chris, I do understand the rules, but a story does not stand up unless you can attribute its source, you could easily be making it up. It’s so important to be able to attribute quotes.

  17. If it was worth it, yes. But to do that, I think I’d want to check that the speaker meant what they said first.

    However, you seem to be confused as to what the Chatham House rule actually says. The Chatham House rule does not say you can’t write about what was said – only that you don’t identify the speaker or their affiliation. The rule is quite clearly stated at the Chatham House website. It’s not some kind of gagging order.

    Anyone speaking in a public forum is clearly not interested in keeping the views they express secret. But they are wary of getting carpeted afterwards, which was why the rule was created. People always speak more freely if they think the quotes won’t be attributed to them. They will also lie more freely, but that’s one of the things you just have to deal with (and fact-check).

    There is no real sanction for breaking the rule, other than never getting invited back. It’s the same old trade-off as with off-the-record or on-background.

  18. Blogs are the ultimate exercise of freedom of speech. For a person to say that they are concerned about how his remarks would be interpreted is an act of trying to suppress. Good for you and other famous diarists, who recount faithfully.

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