Tucked away in the debate about what Peter Costello did or didn’t say about his own leadership aspirations is the rather far more important questions the debate raises with regards to statements made ‘on and off the record’. Tony Abbott in his comments over the debacle has said: “If [the remarks] were off the record in 2005, they should also be off the record in 2007, and if something is off the record it in effect doesn't exist and there's nothing wrong with denying something that didn't exist."
The problem is here is; regardless of whether or not something was said ‘off the record’, if later it is leaked to the public and it is found to actually have been said, then it has become ‘on the record’ even if it was initially supposed to be ‘off the record’. In other words, if it is shown to have been said then it is on the record as having been said regardless of the consequences.
There is, of course, a journalist’s creed whereby stuff that is told to a journalist ‘off the record’ does indeed normally stay off the record. Historians, however, are generally far less circumspect about the proprieties of ‘on’ or ‘off the record’ statements. If something is said and is proven to have been said then, contrary to Abbott’s assertion, it does indeed exist and for the historian it is, therefore, quite acceptable to use when presenting history. The truth of history won’t allow itself to be distorted by the personal whims and egos of history makers; the objective recording of history is far too important for those sorts of considerations.
When a politician is caught lying there should be no ‘off the record’ protections. If history only tolerates the truth then there is no reason why those that make history should not be forced to succumb to those same truths.