Chatham House Rules

While John Battelle was attending and later grousing about all the off-the-record newsmaker briefings in Davos, Arianna Huffington today reports on one on-the-record session in which the short-fused, decidedly anti-centrist Republican frontrunner John McCain “bites her head off.”

Ms. Huffington previews the rough road ahead for Sen. McCain (think Macaca): “Indeed, if he loses his temper over being called out for marginalizing opposition to Iraq as ‘far left’ (the hoariest of GOP talking points), this is going to be a really long campaign trail for John McCain – offering anyone with a cellphone camera endless opportunities to make their mark on YouTube.”

In a posting today, Mr. Battelle shares his softening to Mrs. Clinton after hearing of the Democratic frontrunner’s like-minded position on electronic privacy. Over the weekend, however, he related his frustration as the hungry kid-in-the-Davos-candy-store unable to eat anything:

“Is that nearly every session I attended where I got that unmistakable ‘Shit I have to post on this’ feeling was, unfortunately, off the record. Last night Larry and Sergey sat down with Charlie Rose for an intimate chat at a private event. Off the record. Before that I spoke to a room full of Media Governors – the folks who run just about every major media company in the world. Off the record. Before that, a gathering of influential editors and journalists from all over the globe. Again, off the record.”

After his readers chastised him for his rant, Battelle clarifies in an update:

“…I need to clarify. Most of Davos was in fact on the record, I was noting that the stuff where I found the most insights tended to be off the record. And I am investigating whether some of what I heard was in fact subject to looser ‘Chatham House’ rules where just the speaker cannot be identified. Overall, I do defend the practice of getting leaders together from time to time in an off the record environment, it allows them to share experiences openly and learn from them.”

From a PR perspective, many seasoned practitioners advise their clients that nothing is (ever) off-the-record. In fact, when you have many journalists in a room with a newsmaker, how can the off-the-record rules even be enforced? If news is made, isn’t the journalist at risk of compromising his or her ethics by withholding it? Off-the-record perhaps works in a one-on-one briefing, but swearing to silence a gaggle of reporters is a much dicier proposition. (And we’re not even talking cell phone cameras here.)

Today, this blogger is moderating a PCNY panel featuring media industry reporters from The New York Times, New York Post, Marketwatch,, and Business Week. Then it’s off to the Always On Network kick-off panel on media disruption with the chiefs at Technorati, CKS Partners, Softbank and Reuters. Stay tuned for more on this and other sundry subjects.