Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Nicholas Jones explains how the growth in non-attributed quotes and stories based on anonymous sources is eating away at the probity of British journalism:

My heart goes out to that unsung hero who never falters when faced by journalists desperate for an eye witness quote. Once I see those three all-important words -- "an onlooker said..." -- I know I wont be disappointed.

Indeed I have become the "onlooker’s" greatest fan. And, anorak that I am, I have started keeping a file on what the "onlooker" says.

My admiration knew no bounds when I found four separate mentions in just one edition of the Sun:

Page 3...topless blondes from Big Brother…"An onlooker said: ‘They helped smear sun cream on each other and it all got a bit steamy’."

Page 5...christening of Eastenders' Steve McFadden’s daughter …"An onlooker said: ‘He looked very much the proud dad as he cradled his baby’."

Page 9...Chris Evans/Billie Piper snatch photo…"An onlooker said: ‘He looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders’."

Page 17...Sienna Miller/Jude Law snatch photo looking "bleary-eyed"…"An onlooker said: ‘Perhaps they’re just not morning people’."

(Sun 27.9.2004)

Ok, you may think that’s just showbiz, but attributing remarks to an "onlooker" is just a cheap device for churning out the stereotype quotes which have become a cliché in celebrity journalism. A pocket book full of suitable one liners allows carte blanche when it comes to dreaming up the best possible story line.

My fear is we have a generation of reporters who think nothing of manufacturing quotes and fabricating stories. Entertaining though much of this copy might be, the growth in un-attributed quotes and stories based wholly on anonymous sources has spread like a cancer, eating away at the probity of British journalism.

Among the worst offenders are royalty, show business, sports and of course, politics. At Westminster, the "onlooker" is given far greater status. You all know the drill: "A Downing Street insider said this…a cabinet source said that…a ministerial aide revealed this…a top civil servant confirmed that"…and so it goes on, every "source" imaginable except the source of the quote.


My friend the "onlooker" is constantly in demand because of the endless stream of snatch pictures taken by the paparazzi and there’s no let up in sight. Some of the tabloids are now advertising for sneak stories and photographs of celebrities.

Every day in its bottom strap line on page two, the Sun sets out its stall: "We’ve got wads of cash for readers who give us hot stories". It’s the same message in the Daily Star: "We pay for good info and tips."

Not to be outdone the News of the World has offered its readers "big money for sizzling shots of showbiz love-cheats…Send us your camera phone photos of celebs and we’ll flash the cash!"

There are lots of helpful tips: "Just have your camera phone handy when you’re out on the town…if you happen to find yourself face to face with fame and it’s looking dog rough, simply point and shoot".

I am getting worried for the "onlooker’s" sanity…once this bonanza takes off there’ll be so many more pix that need embellishing.

(First published by Journalist in March 2005)