Explainer: The Chatham House Rule and Alan Jones

5 December 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

How could the phrase ‘died of shame‘ and the Chatham House Rule have something in common? Well, leave it to Alan Jones, the 2GB radio shock jock who took a nasty swipe at Prime Minister Julia Gillard and later used the ‘Chatham House Rule’ as a defence for his scathing comments.

It all began at a Sydney University Liberal Club dinner at Waterfront restaurant, a ticketed event open to the public upon invitation to a Facebook event page titled ‘Presidents Dinner ’12 with Alan Jones,’ or via the club at the university.

Attendees included Liberal politicians, students, journalists and Alan Jones himself, who proclaimed in his 50-minute speech that  Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s late father ‘died a few weeks ago of shame’ because his daughter  ‘told lies every time she stood for parliament.’

This rhetoric proved unpopular when dinner attendee and journalist Jonathan Marshall reported the remarks in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph to the Australian public. Jones promptly admitted his wrongdoing in the days following and also stated that although he was sorry, the dinner was strictly held under the Chatham House rule.

The Chatham House Rule clearly states:

‘When a meeting or part thereof is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s) not that of any other participant may be revealed.’

Originating in 1927 in London, Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, created the morally binding rule to promote free speech and encourage openness and sharing of information with the protection of anonymity.

The Chatham House Rule must be publicly announced at the start of any meeting or event where the organisers see fit to enforce the rule. It mustn’t be implied or assumed at any function. In the case of Alan Jones, the issue of the announcement of the Chatham House Rule is one of debate. Jones remains adamant that the rule was publicly announced whereas Jonathan Marshall contends that his recording of the night had no such statement.

What is interesting to note is that Marshall was late to the event and failed to identify himself as a journalist, and accusations have been made that he either didn’t hear the announcement, or heard it and ignored it.

If Marshall had have followed Chatham House Rules, Alan Jones would have never been linked to his words. His reputation would still be intact, his advertisers would still support his radio show and he wouldn’t have been the victim of a social media tweet attack.

If the event was not held under the rule, then Marshall was simply doing his job. The fact that he didn’t say he was a journalist when asked is questionable, but he was nonetheless reporting a very telling character flaw of one of Australia’s prominent media figures.

In either case, the Chatham House Rule is not legally binding and hence there can be no lawsuit filed against someone who breaks the rule. The only consequence possible is a sanction enforced by the event holders which can exclude the person in question from attending events in the future.

The Rule’s success depends on it being perceived as morally binding. This directly impacts journalism practice as perception is everything and journalists need to be regarded as moral and ethical.

The fact that there is no definitive evidence that the Rule was announced at the Liberal dinner places doubt on Marshall’s journalism ethics and codes of conduct. As Dr Margaret Simons, director for the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, said to Media Watch, ‘we can’t override codes of ethics just because we’ve got a good story, we have to really weigh the public interest.’

Hedley Thomas, the National Affairs Editor for The Australian, also said that a breach of the rule ‘could undermine public confidence in journalists potentially resulting in journalists being unable to do their jobs properly and the public interest not being properly served.’

Confusion over whether the Chatham House Rule was in play has not only occurred at the Liberal function.  In 2010, Australian journalist Matt De Groot attended a conference that initially was open to the media but at the last minute was actually closed.

Arriving late to the conference De Groot missed this and also the announcement that the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule.  It wasn’t long before De Groot realised that Immigration Minister Chris Evans was being a little too candid for a media conference.

Despite being encouraged to not run the story by Evans’ media adviser, De Groot went on 2UE radio and reported the senator’s remarks that the boat people crisis was ‘killing the government’ and that it was his ‘greatest failure’ to not be able to incite national debate on the issue.

In an interview with Leslie Cannold, De Groot admitted that he didn’t know what the Chatham House Rule even was and that he didn’t get the impression that he was doing anything wrong, ‘just inconvenient.’

It is hard to follow a rule when you don’t know what it is, but nevertheless it is extremely negligent for a practising journalist to not know what the Chatham House Rule is. Furthermore, when you are promptly informed of a rule after the event, like De Groot was, you should follow that rule, especially when another journalist who also arrived late and failed to hear the Chatham House Rule announcement agreed not to publish.

While the Marshall and De Groot cases reveal how misunderstandings jeopardise the integrity of the rule and the journalists themselves, there are also implications when the rule is properly followed.

Back in February 2004, The Age’s defence journalist Mark Forbes wrote a report about an unnamed source who said that intelligence agencies had told the Federal government in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war that some of George Bush’s justifications for the invasion were overstated.

Days after the report, the unnamed source, Frank Lewincamp, director of the Defence Intelligence organisation, publicly accused Forbes of revealing his identity by using the phrase ‘one of Australia’s most senior intelligence officers.’ This description, he says, in the context of the report, made it obvious to people working in his profession that it could only have applied to three or four departmental heads.

The Chatham House Rule comes into play as Forbes used information from a seminar at the Australian National University he attended in 2003 as a masters student, which allowed attendees to use the information but not to attribute it.

While Ross Babbage, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Center, contends that the report was the ‘most serious breach of the Chatham House rule for 25 years,’ the fact is that Forbes didn’t reveal who Lewincamp was at any stage and held true to journalism codes of ethics.

What the Forbes and Lewincamp, and Jones and Marshall incidents prove is that problems can still arise for journalists whether they choose to follow the Chatham House Rule or disregard it. However, it seems that the problem isn’t with the rule, it’s with what is said when the rule is in play. Organisers, politicians, media personal and journalists in particular need to be especially stringent with what they choose to say and broadcast to the public.

The full list of upstart’s explainers can be found here.

Emily Gook is a second year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on twitter @EmilyGook.