04.18.2017 08:17 AM

#ONpoli, and the false god of anonymous sources

So, there’s a Toronto Star story this morning about Kathleen Wynne’s political future. By my count, it has five sources in it who are quoted directly, but not named. There are three other people quoted in it: Wynne, her Finance Minister, and a guy who doesn’t want to be quoted.

A snippet:

Sources told the Star that more than a dozen MPPs are looking at not running again in the 2018 election over fears they will lose their seats due to her unpopularity.

No MPPs will yet speak publicly about the potential exodus — more out of their personal regard for Wynne than‎ due to a fear of retribution.

But some are known to be considering an appeal to her en masse‎ to share their worries about the future.

Quite apart from whether this kind of story is fair to Kathleen Wynne or not – she’s in politics, and she has likely authorized many people to speak anonymously on her behalf over the years – this kind of story is possibly unfair to readers. Among other things, these sorts of tales require the reader to trust the paper, trust the reporter, and – most importantly – trust the anonymous source.

Should we? I mean, if these folks feel so passionately about the need for Kathleen Wynne to step down, shouldn’t they say so, publicly?  Shouldn’t they attach their name to their conviction?

I like what the International Journalists’ Network has to say about the issue:

Media professionals everywhere in the world grapple with the thorny issue of anonymity. It can be a double-edged sword.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking a big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”

The SPJ code of ethics makes two important points on anonymity:

1. Identity sources whenever possible. The public is entitled to as much information as can be provided on sources’ reliability.

2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

The problem surfaced recently in The New York Times’ newsroom. In March, the newspaper’s top management cracked down on anonymity, sparked by readers’ complaints about “persistent” use of unnamed sources. The new guidelines require editors to approve the use of anonymity in stories.

“Direct quotes from anonymous sources should be used rarely, and only when such quotes are pivotal to the story,” according to the July 15 article explaining the crackdown. “At least one editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous source before publication.”

The Toronto Star is one of the best newspapers in the world. It is. The reporter in question has been on the Queen’s Park beat for many years, and is considered to really know his stuff. And, as noted, Kathleen Wynne is a grown-up politician, and she knows how the game is played.

But, if you were to ask the public about important public issues – say, who their Premier is, and is going to be – they would probably indicate a preference for knowing who a source is, and what that person’s agenda is, so they can decide whether he or she is credible or not.

It’s not that reputable reporters or newspapers lie: in my experience, that almost never happens outside of Russia and dictatorships.  It’s that anonymous sources do.

So, at the end of this windy exposition, does anyone have a clear sense of what is happening with Kathleen Wynne?

No, not really.  And that’s the problem with the false god of anonymous sources: you just don’t know, you know?



  1. Matt says:

    Several months ago you made mention of seeing polling that indicated the “Ontario Liberal brand” was still very strong in Ontario.

    Do you know if current polling still shows that? Would a leadership change fix their poll numbers, fundraising and candidate issues?

    And who would they get to replace Wynne? I don’t really see anyone in the OLP currently at Queens Park any more likable than Wynne.

    So they choose have a leadership race and choose someone on the outside which will take months. Then that person has to get a a seat in the legislature which would take a couple more months. So maybe by November they’ll be in the Premier’s chair and after Christmas break will have what, 5 months to turn everything around before the election in June 2018.

    • Charlie says:


      It sounds like the discussion around replacing Wynne is predicated on the notion that a new leader would be 1) phenomenally popular with the electorate, 2) able to turn the ship for the Liberals in less than a year until the next election and 3) make up for all the lost time and energy the party spends on electing a new leader.

      If the Ontario Liberals really are lagging in the polls, I see more risks than benefits from doing something like this.

  2. Bill Templeman says:

    WK, your question brings up the Yuge issue of media literacy. It should be taught in high school, and not as an elective. I know I gobble lots of media uncritically every day. Not good. This is how bias and bigotry grow. For example:

    “Sources close to the Daisy Group report that owner Warren Kinsella is leaving the firm to run for election as President of Ireland!” Interesting bit of gossip. Who’s interests might be served by spreading this (fake) news? A Daisy competitor? A disgruntled ex-employee? Someone who wants to discourage a prospective investor? An opponent of the current Irish president?

    Reading media should be done slowly. It isn’t. We should argue with the page/screen. We don’t.

  3. dave constable says:

    Sometimes a kind of anonymity that irks me is when our leaders and media use terms like ‘the world ,’ ‘the international community,’ ‘ the normal world order,’ …as substantiation for whatever opinion they have just offered. When our leaders utter this , it likely refers to no more than half a dozen capitols, yet they pretend it means all 200+ members of the United Nations.
    As well, I wait in vain for a journalist, when one of our leaders says we are bombing someone or other to protect free world interests, to demand an answer to “Specifically, what are those interests?”

  4. P. Brenn says:

    seems more like a gossip column then reporting .. polls have her tracking poorly so lets go show her own folks are against her… little value

  5. Miles Lunn says:

    If their internal polls also show the party in third place it is going to be pretty hard to come back without leadership change. The only two times or you could say three I’ve seen a party come back from this far back was the BC Liberals in 2013, OLP in 2014, and Alberta PC’s in 1993 and in each case it involved a leadership change. Had Gordon Campbell, Dalton McGuinty, and Don Getty tried to stay on, I really doubt any of them would have won the next election. Whether one likes Wynne or not, their best hope is leadership change although I think the real problem is the party has been in power for 14 years (15 by the next election) and usually most parties have a shelf life and after a certain point people just get tired and want a change. True in BC, the BC Liberals have been in power longer and still are only a few points behind and may very well win the election in a couple of weeks, but two key differences; Christy Clark’s approval ratings have never fallen below 30% let alone in the teens; Gordon Campbell’s fell to 9% and he understood he was done so stepped aside far enough before the next election so the party could come back. The other is in BC, there aren’t a lot of swing votes, the percentage who vote for the pro free enterprise coalition is usually around 45% while the NDP vote is pretty consistent around 40% in BC. In Ontario you have a lot more swing votes than BC and with the Liberals in the middle they can bleed their Blue Liberal support to the PC’s and progressive wing to the NDP. The Ontario PC’s have a floor of 30% while a ceiling of 45% and last time they were near the floor whereas polls now put them closer to the ceiling.

    That being said as a PC supporter I hope she stays on as it pretty much guarantees we will win in 2018 unless Brown does something really really stupid whereas if she steps down it could be a much tighter race. I also don’t think Howarth is as big a threat as Brown to the OLP. For the claim of most Ontarioans being progressive, actually most are centrist and last provincial election we had a federal government on the right thus having a progressive provincial government balanced things out. Now with a progressive federal government, having a conservative provincial will balance things out.

    • Mulletaur says:

      The ‘internal polls’ will say whatever the guy doing them wants them to say (i.e. anything Wynne wants to hear) so he can keep on suckling at the public teat as long as possible.

  6. JH says:

    My question to you would be, if as you say reputable newspapers and reporters don’t lie do they lean or in some cases show bias?
    Fr’instance The Toronto Star has often self-identified as favouring the LPC. Understandable given its history, but does that lean to the Liberals influence its reporting & the folks who oversee those doing the reporting?

  7. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Has the voting public really taken to Brown? I have more than doubts. Elections remain truly strange things. You can never, really predict, what the voters will do.

    • Miles Lunn says:

      Brown is largely an unknown, thus if he messes up badly the NDP could win or if the Liberals chose a new leader they could possibly win. Right now (could change in the next year) this seems more a throw the bums out than vote for someone and when you have a throw the bums out election people don’t tend to care too much about the opposition unless they do something really distasteful, their main objective is to get the governing party out of office.

      • Ronald O'Dowd says:


        I would argue that Harper’s loss was not really a throw the bums out election. My indirect advice prior to becoming a Liberal was to model the majority mandate like the two minorities. Harper chose to veer right instead. IMHO, that’s why the CPC lost.

        In essence, Carol Jamieson’s argument was only partly right. When she said at the Montreal convention that this dog won’t hunt, that actually only really applied if Harper deliberately chose to abandon the center-right, which he clearly did in 2011.

  8. billg says:

    Kelly Leitch is working on a journalist screening app so, I’m not worried about anonymous sources anymore.

  9. Lyndon Dunkley says:

    Like everything in life, acceptability is in the eye of the beholder.

    Anonymous source suggests Trump Russia collusion – send out your impeachment party invites.
    Anonymous source suggests leader I like has worn out welcome – conspiracy!

  10. Dork in East York says:

    I’m genuinely surprised how many high profile Liberals MPPs and cabinet ministers are intending to run for re-election next year. Surely a cushy job on Bay Street or a crown corp is better than collecting dust on the third party benches? Perhaps many caucus members truly think the party can right the ship by next June.

  11. Crow says:

    Doesn’t Sousa want it?

    That’s why he’s grandstanding on the housing file and getting so much media?

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