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4 June 2011

The Chatham House Rule

Tag(s): Pedantry

In a recent debate in which I participated the moderator reminded us that the event was being held under Chatham House Rules. I wanted to ask her which one, but held my sarcastic tongue and decided to blog about it instead. Chatham House is the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. I used to be a member there in my early years at Sony because our Japanese MD thought it a good place for directors to network with the Great and the Good. No doubt he was right but at that time I preferred to network with my customers and transferred most of my efforts to that. Nevertheless I attended some events and learnt the Chatham House Rule. There is only one Chatham House Rule.

The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:

"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), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."

It is a common misunderstanding that there are plural rules rather than just one. More seriously it is also commonly thought that the Rule means that information learnt in a meeting cannot be quoted outside. I have heard some say it means “What is said in this room stays in this room.“ This is not the meaning at all.

The Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It was first adopted in 1927 and has been updated in 1992 and in 2002. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free and open discussion. Meetings do not have to take place at Chatham House, or be organised by Chatham House, to be held under the Rule.

The Rule allows people to speak openly and to express views that they may not otherwise express if they knew their comments would be shared publicly. By encouraging free expression without attribution ideas are likely to be shared and tested more readily.

Speakers at a meeting can be named publicly, but it is important to abide by the spirit of the Rule and to ensure that this will not cause what is said at the meeting to be attributed to the speaker at a later date. For example, a speaker can be named in advance of an event for publicity purposes and a summary of the discussion can be circulated afterwards. However, the summary should contain nothing that identifies, either explicitly or implicitly, who said what. To aid this process the list of attendees should not be circulated beyond those participating in the meeting.

The Rule is widely used by individuals working in government, business, legal firms, academia, the media and policy institutes and think tanks. The Rule is used internationally and has become a byword for authoritative information and ideas.  The Rule depends on its success on being seen as morally binding. If an individual breaks the Rule sanctions may be taken against him or her that may involve that person not being invited to participate in similar events in the future.

As a matter of fact the Rule is not used for all meetings at Chatham House. It is not often used for Members’ Events, but rather more frequently for smaller research meetings, for example where work in progress is discussed or when subject matter is politically sensitive. Most Chatham House conferences are held under the Rule.

It must be clear from what I have said that the Rule is not the same as speaking "off the record” to a journalist but does get confused with it.

Tony Blair’s notorious Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell, wrote in the Financial Times in 2010 that, at least for most people in the public eye, “life is on the record”, and that it is difficult for the famous Chatham House Rule to survive in a world with Twitter and Facebook.  But Chatham House rebuts this and states that the rule can be used effectively as long as the person tweeting or messaging reports only what was said and does not identify – directly or indirectly – the speaker or another participant.

Off-the-record material is often useful and reporters may be keen to use it, so sources wishing to ensure the confidentiality of certain information are generally advised to discuss the "terms of use" before actually disclosing the information, if possible. Some journalists and news organisations have policies against accepting information "off the record" because they believe it interferes with their ability to report truthfully, or because they suspect it may be intended to mislead them or the public.

When I was running a publicly quoted company I learnt the protocol of when to talk to a journalist and when not to. The Listing Rules of the London Stock Exchange require material information to be communicated publicly by a company so that all shareholders in theory have the chance to receive this information at the same time and act on it. Companies have been fined heavily for sitting on price sensitive information for too long. It is a delicate subject because the employees of a company are privy to a great deal of information and they may also be shareholders. Therefore they are all under strict rules not to pass on information to outsiders that is not already in the public domain. If they or members of their family trade on such information they will be committing a serious offence.

Even if they cannot report certain information directly, journalists can use "off the record" information to uncover related facts, or to find other sources that are willing to speak on the record. This is especially useful in investigative reporting. There are several categories of "speaking terms" (agreements concerning attribution) that cover information conveyed in conversations with journalists. In the UK the following conventions are generally accepted:

  • "On-the-record": all that is said can be quoted and attributed.
  • "Unattributable": what is said can be reported but not attributed.
  • "Off-the-record": the information is provided to inform a decision or provide a confidential explanation, not for publication.

However, confusion over the precise meaning of "unattributable" and "off-the-record" has led to more detailed formulations:

In the UK there are two specific protocols: "The Chatham House Rule" as explained above and "Lobby Terms”. By this convention accredited journalists are allowed in to the otherwise restricted Members' Lobby in the Houses of Parliament on the basis that information received there is never attributed and events there are not reported. "Lobby terms" are agreed to extend this arrangement to cover discussions that take place elsewhere.

In North America there are further variations on this theme:

  • "Not for attribution" (as described by the Canadian Association of Journalists). The comments may be quoted directly, but the source may only be identified in general terms (e.g., "a government insider"). In practice such general descriptions may be agreed with the interviewee.
  • "On background" (Canadian Association of Journalists). The thrust of the briefing may be reported (and the source characterized in general terms as above) but direct quotes may not be used.
  • "Deep background" This term is used in the U.S., though not consistently. Most journalists would understand "deep background" to mean that the information may not be included in the article but is used by the journalist to enhance his or her view of the subject matter, or to act as a guide to other leads or sources. Most deep background information is confirmed elsewhere before being reported. The famous investigation by Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post into the Watergate scandal was largely conducted on deep background. Hence the nickname they gave to their principal inside source, “Deep Throat.”

John Rentoul, another journalist, has written  “Now may be the time to recall the basics of the Chatham House Rule as explained to me by Simon Walters, political editor of the Mail on Sunday: “We Chatham up and put it in the paper.”

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

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