Off the record and unofficially, sources are a nuisance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:00am

THE USE OF anonymous sources is commonplace in journalism. Without 'Deep Throat', the mysterious insider who guided Washington Post journalists to the heart of the Watergate scandal, ex-president Richard Nixon would not have been forced out of the Oval Office. However, most references to unidentified sources in the local press are evidence of slipping journalistic standards and have nothing to do with protecting whistle blowers.

The Education and Manpower Bureau's release of the results of the first benchmark tests for English and Putonghua teachers last Friday is a case in point. In a terse press announcement, the bureau revealed that two-thirds of the candidates had failed the English written paper.

The release quoted an Education and Manpower Bureau spokesman as saying: 'While candidates are capable of correcting students' common mistakes, they are less capable in explaining the mistakes. Grammatical accuracy is also an area which requires improvement.'

Some in the electronic media cited this official comment as if it were a remark made to them on an exclusive basis. TVB Jade called the spokesman a 'government source', while RTHK's Chinese service referred to him as 'a source'.

The bureau obviously also made available 'sources' to speak to print reporters on a background basis. As a result, major Chinese dailies were able to substantiate their stories with further comments from an unspecified source the following day. The Apple Daily, Ming Pao, Sing Tao and Oriental Daily all quoted an unidentified 'government' or 'bureau' source as putting the blame for the poor results on the so-called communicative approach of teaching English introduced in the mid-1980s. This emphasises the students' conversational skills at interacting in everyday situations, rather than knowledge of English grammar.

This non-attributed criticism could have far-reaching implications for the way in which the next generation learns English. It is puzzling, to say the least, why the bureau did not initially assign an official to go on the record and start a proper public debate on this important topic.

Equally disappointing was the media's readiness to tolerate responsible officials lurking in the shadows. What the anonymous official offered was merely views on a long-standing issue. It is an insult to the media's integrity when officials can dictate whether they can hide behind the wall of anonymity in expressing opinions on matters of public concern.

The South China Morning Post was apparently the only paper bothered to find somebody to speak on the record. Instead of relying on the government 'source', the Post approached Professor Amy Tsui Bik-mei, director of the English Language Education Centre at the University of Hong Kong. She attributed the candidates' poor performance to 'the lack of importance attached to grammar teaching under the communicative approach to teaching English', a view which happened to be the same as that of the nameless official.

Perhaps after assessing the initial public response, Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun felt comfortable enough on Sunday to repeat on camera what the mysterious source had previously said in private.

Former special counsel to president Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis acted frequently as an anonymous source during his 13-month term in the White House. He later admitted he had gone on the record only about 50 per cent of the time.

'Anonymous sources,' Mr Davis asserted, 'are terrible unless I'm the anonymous source.' That self-serving statement should remind reporters to think twice, the next time they allow officials to put on a mask.

Andy Ho is a political commentator