So, some News Ltd journalist who I’d never heard of before this morning has outed a blogger/twitterer (who very effectively criticised the lame efforts of the media during the last election), on the flimsy grounds that he’s a public servant WHO HAS POLITICAL OPINIONS he expresses in his non-work capacity and for some reason it’s “in the public interest” for us to know who he is. You know, in case we run into him in the street and want to have a chat. Or we’re his manager and can be persuaded to sack him.
And let’s be clear, that’s what this is about. The only relevance of his job is as a target to punish him for pissing journalists off. There’s no evidence that his job has anything to do with his opinions, or that he lets his opinions influence his job, or that there’s something wrong with a person who works for the public service having political opinions like the rest of us. (All of which Grog very eloquently denies.)
Tomorrow in The Australian: James Massola outs the Easter Bunny. IS HE A PUBLIC SERVANT? You’ll find out in the morning.
But why shouldn’t we know who he is? Why shouldn’t news organisations publicise the details of anyone engaged in the political debate?
Because for many people, their livelihood is quite incompatible with their expressing political views in their own name. Sure, they have a right to express those views – but if linked back to their work, via their identity being made public, it could result in serious consequences for their employment. And it’s not in the interest of the rest of us that such voices be silenced.
Which is effectively what will happen if everyone who dares participate is going to be vigorously pursued by the fourth estate, with all the resources at its disposal, and have their public participation deliberately jammed against their personal lives, their ability to earn a living, their support for their family.
Journalists, whose public opinions are directly associated with their livelihood such that there’s no conflict, or those who are their own employers, or those who are unemployed or unemployable, are free to talk sanctimoniously about “owning your words” and “the right to know” and so forth – but that’s because they are personally immune from damage. It’s all very well for James Massola to have his name attached to his words – because they’re what his employer pays him to write. (Although if I were Massola I wouldn’t be so confident that having my name attached to today’s effort will be without consequence in the long run.) It might be different if James wanted to express an opinion incompatible with his employers’ interests, something that could get him sacked – then he would have to choose between participation in the public arena or not going hungry, a choice he shouldn’t have to make. Maybe James doesn’t care about that because he intends to always be a good boy and do his master’s bidding, but that’s not the case for all of us, and nor should it be.
There is a place in the public debate for people who cannot afford to use their real names. As long as they do not take advantage of their work situation, or use their anonymity to pursue work-related goals, or in some other way abuse their anonymity – and expressing a political opinion is not abusing your anonymity – then why on Earth shouldn’t they use a pseudonym?
It’s not, as James disingenuously pretends, about a “right to anonymity”. It’s about a right to participate freely in political discussion, in a world in which employers can be less than sympathetic to such a right. The bullying by Mr Massola and his organisation in this instance, abusing their power to punish a critic, is a problem because it is being used in an obvious attempt silence and prevent such involvement in the future – to send a clear message to anyone else who would dare to question them in the future that WE WILL DO WHAT WE CAN (and that’s a fair amount) TO CRUSH YOU.
Let’s hope that Grog – and his employer – are able to treat the gambit with the contempt it deserves.
UPDATE: Just a question on the etiquette of outing: if outing without a good reason is wrong (and I’d argue it is), then what about outing an anonymous outer? Do they not deserve the justice of having their own names associated with their spiteful act? And if so, then what of the person who outs the outer? Are they immune despite being the outer of an outer, because their outing was legitimate under the previous outing rule? So an outer of an outer of an outer would be back to square one and deserve to be outed by an outer of an outer of an outer of an outer? Yup, I think that’s fairly clear now.
UPDATE #2: If anyone doubted this was about bullying, check out James Massola’s further attack today:
Jericho blogged as a hobby outside work hours. But he sent literally hundreds of partisan political tweets out, during work hours… Jericho’s decision to “live blog” the Media 140 conference (was it a sick day, a day in lieu, annual leave, did he clear it with his supervisor?) made my mind up.
What a vicious little tattle-tale. Will Massola now start timing Grog’s bathroom breaks to make sure the taxpayer’s getting value for money out of his employment?
UPDATE #3: And Tim Dunlop contrasts News’ shamelessly hypocritical behaviour with its campaigning about the importance of anonymity to free speech during the SA election. (I’d still like to know when they’re going to start outing their “staff writers”.)
UPDATE #4: My Pure Poison colleague Dave writes an excellent explanation for journalists who still don’t understand why amateurs might need to stay anonymous.