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.
No one here will be surprised if a certain person, calling for Grog to lose his job over at Grog’s Gamut, and using a name that often appears here, is actually that same person who posts here.
Anyone who goes online anonymously risks being outed, and no doubt that adds some frisson to the experience. The problem is that employers take it all too seriously. Ultimately it is the outer that bears the odium for their act. An outer of an outer should have less shame attached to their actions.
Another shameful act is when someone steals your anonymous identity. I don’t believe that Grog should resign, and I didn’t leave the comment at his blog which you mentioned, nawagadj.
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OK, sorry for the imputation.
The interesting thing – that I attached to my post about Grog today – is that journalists themselves made appeals anonymously against criticisms of their coverage on his blog post. Journo commenters cited resources of their employers – or their employer’s unreasonable expectations – they wrote this anonymously. Why? because it would be professionally dangerous – they cannot contribute to any publication but their own. These journos who are all on twitter, commented anonymously and Grog did not out any one of them – and anyone with a blogspot or wordpress blog knows – you get quite a lot of info on people who comment. Very few of these bloggers came out to his defence today. It’s sad.
If we had better entrenched free speech rights it might be easier for employed people to express their opinions. The situation is more favourable to employees in the US, particularly government employees.
No more nameless editorials in The Oz?
Well, it would be in the ‘public interest’ to know who wrote the one advocating the destruction of a political party.
On the one hand I think that, as a consumer of newsmedia, I have a right to investigate who is presenting that news to me so that I can evaluate the potential for dishonesty, bias or relevant experience. To my mind the increasing granting of anonymity to participants in the national debate has become a cancer on western democracy.
But on the other hand I blog under a pseudonym because I’ve seen people like Iain Hall and his rotten little sidekicks try to damage others professionally for their political views.
Obviously the potential for that sort of vindictive behaviour is concerning, but I’m starting to wonder whether my decision to remain anonymous is based more on fear than it is on reason. Is there really a potential for professional harm here, and even if there is isn’t that a fight that I should be willing to have?
Hiding behind a pseudonym in case my professional career is impacted by my poitical views hardly seems like a particularly effective way to demonstrate a commitment to the principle of free political expression.
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