Confidential Briefings and the Chatham House Rule

I’ve always been a great admirer of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) otherwise known as Chatham House. And I’ve always trusted colleagues to respect any confidential briefings disclosed under the Chatham House Rule (there’s only one by the way), which states that:

“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”.

Perhaps rather naively I’ve always assumed that even journalists respected this world-famous rule.

So my eyebrows were raised when my instructors on a recent media training course emphasised that “There’s no such thing as off the record”. “Surely that doesn’t apply to an exchange carried out under the Chatham House Rule? “ I asked. “No” they replied “the story always comes first”.

I’ll certainly be more careful in future.

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Well I am surprised that a trainer advocated that approach - it's a principle that certainly isn't universally adopted. Computer Weekly has long been running a successful networking club for IT directors called the CW500 club. These sessions have always been conducted under Chatham House rules and reporters have never been able to report the debate, but we have always encouraged writers to attend the sessions and then speak to the contributors afterwards and get them to speak on the record about their thoughts. This way debate isn't stifled and journalists still get a story if the source is willing to discuss further.
If you closely examine how the apparently inflexible Rule is interpreted by those attending Chatham House, you'll find that it doesn't actually include actual recording of what goes on - even if individuals are not named. A colleague was surprised to hear her voice on BBC Radio 4's PM programme - a recording of her facilitating a workshop at Chatham House. We must empathise with journalists, though, we all know that they've a job to do! Mils.