Monday, 10 March 2008

Power gets peeved

Samantha Power, ex-senior foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, made an astounding slip of the tongue on Friday. As a professional used to dealing with the media (including grillings by Stephen Sackur's on Hard Talk), she would have known that it is ill-advised and fruitless to tell a journalist "that's off the record" after saying something as unbearably juicy as "the woman's a monster" about her employer's election rival, Hillary Clinton. Especially when Camp Obama is purporting to rise above the back-biting.

'Off the record' is a notoriously grey area. Does it mean the journalist can use the information as long as it is not directly attributed to the source? Does it mean the journalist needs to know some sensitive information for background, but it cannot be published? The ambiguity is exploited by both journalists and sources. Often, first-time or inexperienced interviewees get carried away, reveal something, realise they shouldn't have said it, and claim it is off the record. Which can lead to battles of will, as the journalist explains that the caveat does not work quite like that. The reporter must weigh up the ethics and consequences of publishing the material, but he is, theoretically, within his or her right to do so.

But Samantha Power was not an inexperienced interviewee. She could have kept her opinions to hersefl to avoid such a situation. After all, the interview was not even primarily about the election, but about the publication of her new book.

So does that mean journalist Gerri Peev walks away unsullied by the course of events? Journalists and bloggers have been debating this point, and many think not. The general consensus is that Peev would have thought twice about betraying the confidence of Power had she had to use her again as a source. Safe in the knowledge that this would be unlikely, especially knowing Power would not keep the post of Obama aide for very long once the article was published, Peev could forge ahead and get two articles for the price of one.

It is a difficult call to decide who was most in the wrong, Peev or Power.

Had Power been an unassuming member of the public who lost her job through media trickery, the situation would be more clear cut. But she was not. As a political aide, she must have known the power of the media and the magnitude of such throwaway comments.

Peev claims that printing the whole quote - "the woman's a monster - that's off the record"- served the public interest by revealing Team Obama's hypocrisy, hidden until then under a veneer of benevolence. That is, in my mind, a valid point.

It is just a shame that, for the good of the public interest, one woman's career has been left in shreds for the sake of the advancement of that of another.