So today The Times struck a blow for openness and honesty in public life, with a blistering exposé of… an anonymous detective constable who had been writing an often amusing blog about the trials of modern policing. Blogger ‘NightJack’ had taken the newspaper to court, seeking an injunction to prevent the publication of his identity, but was unsuccessful in his High Court action. The full judgment can be read here.
The Judge was clear that the action failed because:
blogging is essentially a public rather than a private identity,
[at paragraph 11],
and, while I can sympathise with NightJack, it is difficult to see how the opposite could be true. Whether you anticipate being read by your mum and a few mates, or aspire to a readership of the entire population of the British Isles, when you put your witterings up in a corner of the global interweb, you are ‘in publishing’ baby, maybe not on the scale of Condé Nast, but certainly according to the language of the libel laws.
And once those thoughts are out there in the wide world, you have no right to try to stuff the genie back in to the bottle, as the judgment also notes,
if the allegations and observations made by [Night Jack] were themselves contributing to a debate of general interest, as he undoubtedly thinks they are, I cannot see why the proposed publication in The Times would not be worthy of the same classification.
[at paragraph 23]
So having published, it is not up to you how far the dissemination goes. Blogs are built on links and if a more popular site links to yours and the debate goes global, well, hey, isn’t that just the beauty of the internet?
Of course, it is also obvious that when writing about one’s day job, any organisation will be less than sympathetic to attention brought to bear on exactly where they are going wrong. The witness statement from NightJack’s solicitors explicitly mentioned the fear that:
identification as author of the Blog might have an adverse effect on his working relationships.
No shit, Sherlock. The Judge outright rejected this piece of deduction, stating at paragraph 28:
I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.
An argument that the blog was being produced in the officer’s spare time was also rejected and again, it is difficult to see how any alternative conclusion could have been reached – especially given the subject matter, he may have been writing in his down time – but he was still writing about the job. The Judge noted in the final paragraph that, in his view, there was,
a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer has been making these communications.
Following that idea through to its logical conclusion, perhaps the public should be horrified that a serving police officer has no proper arena to raise his concerns about the ‘service’ he is ‘delivering’ other than a blog page? The tone of The Times piece was all mock-outrage about the confidentiality that Jack might have breached, with nay a mention of what happens to whistleblowers, who often find themselves drummed out of the profession they love. Especially, it seems, in the cases of doctors, nurses and, er, police officers, we are increasingly leaving those at the sharp end of public service delivery without the budgets to do the job properly and without any means to communicate about failures and ways to improve, other than channels which may ultimately end up in them being shown the door.
It is important to note, too, that the Honourable bloke on the bench in this case was that friend to Private Eye, Mr Justice Eady, who despite his reluctance to extend the protection of English law to members of Her Majesty’s police force, has no qualms about using it to assist such worthy candidates as the son of the president of Congo-Brazzaville, chiropractic practitioners and Saudi bankers.
Of course, the NightJack exposé wasn’t the first time brave investigative journalists fearlessly exposed the crooked, black hearts beating behind the anonymous masks of some of the best known bloggers. The writer of ‘Girl with a one track mind’ was also at the rough end of some sensationalist reporting by The Times and The Daily Mail, following her shocking crimes of being a woman who both enjoyed sex, and wrote about it. Interviewed after the event, the writer said that she used a pseudonym to,
ensure privacy for oneself and others, not because I had any shame.
I imagine it is the second part of that sentence that convinced the Fourth Estate that they had a moral obligation to publish her name, birth certificate and mother’s profession in order to protect public decency from the wanton hussy.
Similarly, the identity of the writer of the Guido Fawkes political gossip site was exposed on Newsnight, following some rather bizarre attempts by that program to cloak his identity, a strange move when it could be argued that he already had quite a profile for racy goings-on and his real name was something of an open secret amongst journalists.
However, it is perhaps significant that each of the writers mentioned was enjoying a measure of success when exposed. The Girl had seen extracts from her book serialised in The Sunday Times shortly before, which had helped to send it to the top of the pre-ordered paperbacks charts. NightJack had recently won the Orwell Prize for political writing in the blogging category and Guido had been getting up the nose of more than one political grandee. It is very easy to argue, especially in the case of The Girl, that The Times had danced the typical routine of building her up to tear her down, all in the noble interest of selling papers, of course. Would the same paper have outed NightJack if he hadn’t been awarded the prize? It is impossible to say. However in recent months, it has become clear that there is a last-ditch battle being fought by the newspapers against the pesky on-line media, with articles mooting paid for content and other vanguard actions attempting to stem the flow of readers away from the hard copies to the computer screens. Attacking the blogging stars as soon as they gain a profile is one easy way to reassert authority in the face of dwindling readership figures.
There are many reasons why a blog writer would choose to hide behind anonymity: to keep some mystique; to try to avoid any kind of cult of personality building up; in an attempt to let the work speak for itself. I hope that you will not be too shocked to learn that I never sign cheques in the name ‘Julia Smith’. Still, I believe that the creator of Winston Smith and Julia would not censure me for it, having chosen the name ‘George Orwell’ from a shortlist of four, as he worried that publication of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ would affect his day job as a teacher, or that unfavourable reviews would cause damage to his literary ambitions. By the time of the publication of ‘Animal Farm’, as noted by Hilary Spurling, he had,
switched identities so completely that even his old school friends had to learn to call him George.
So while it is true that The Times was probably correct in law, and it is also the case that writers should stand behind their words whenever possible, isn’t it also the truth that with this ruling all the papers have done is to take some of the fun and freedom out of blogging by narrowing the boundaries of online writing to those kept to by the now morally and financially bankrupt broadsheets? They would tell you that it was more honest to be an E.A. Blair than an Orwell but in my humble submission, they would be wrong.