If you can’t defend yourself, you shouldn’t be allowed to speak

Blogger Grog’s Gamut‘s legal name and position in the public service were today published by James Massola writing in The Australian. Media editor Geoff Elliott wrote:

IF you are a public servant and blogging and tweeting, sometimes airing a partisan political line, do you deserve anonymity? No.

… if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are. It is the media’s duty to report it.

Note the get-out-of-free card in that: “if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant… it is the media’s duty to report it.” That is, I note, “particularly”, but not “only”, as a public servant. If you are “influencing the public debate”, an action not otherwise defined by Elliott, The Australian is apparently reserving the right to publish your legal name.

I am not entirely sure that Elliott meant my reading, which is that The Australian believes it is ethical and in the public interest not only to out pseudonymous public servants, but probably pseudonymous anybodies, but given the impact of outing, I think the more alarmist reading is sensible: that is, The Australian will out public servants who are writing about political matters (perhaps broadly interpreted) and will at least seriously consider it in other cases.

Institutional power accrues to people who are willing to open most, or increasingly all, facets of their lives to media and public scutiny: their words present and past, their name, their face, their body, their clothes, their family. Who can’t do that? Well, most of us. I doubt even many of the most powerful relish it, but the less powerful cannot withstand it.

But, let’s take it from the top, shall we? As coffeeandink, who was the victim of repeated outing attempts (not by journalists), writes:

Reasons people may prefer pseudonyms or limited personal disclosure on the Internet:

  • Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution
  • Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence
  • Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, acquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it
  • Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers
  • Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children
  • Because it’s the custom among their Internet cohort
  • Because it’s no one else’s business

Nobody’s business, unless The Australian thinks you are successfully influencing public debate that is. Can’t let the less powerful do that, can we?

As pointed out in Tim Dunlop’s comments, journalists are generally supportive of at least some right to identify pseudonymous writers.

Annabel Crabb of the ABC (from three tweets, here, here and here):

I don’t think anonymity should be a right. Disclosure of identity would be a rebuttable presumption in my ideal world… Rebuttable presumption – ie, you should ID yourself unless there is a good reason for not doing so… @TudorGrrrl I totally think there is an argument for anonymity in some cases. I just think anonymity should be reserved for extreme cases.”

Because of course explaining your “extreme case” somewhere where journalists can find it and in sufficient detail that they agree with it is never going to in and of itself identify you sufficiently to put you in danger.

Ben Packham of the Herald Sun (from two tweets here and here):

If you set yourself up as a critic whose opinions are worth listening to, you owe it to readers to say who you are. It’s about disclosure… Identity disclosure also disclosing who you are NOT. ie. not a member of the executive, senior official, someone with an axe to grind etc.

I think that something that is not often recognised in these discussions is the advantages that many people who are able to write using their real name have. Packham is partly right: identifying yourself as being or not being someone with an axe to grind, or party-affiliated, or an infamous scoundrel or a beloved Australian living treasure may well give your words more power or get your argument taken more seriously or at least read more widely. It is not unreasonable to be cautious about the stance of a pseudonymous writer, or any writer who conceals related facts about themselves, but in fact this disadvantages writers using pseudonyms, including those who are not intending to deceive their readers about their interests. The bias is applied already.

There are many ways that the less powerful are silenced, and conflating having something to hide or keep private with being not worth listening to is one of them, and insisting on identity disclosure is another. Not all pseudonymous writers are using pseudonyms to ethical ends, this is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever been on the Internet. But insisting that only those who name themselves and state their interest to everyone who lives in the country can speak is far worse.

Elsewhere: eGov AU has a roundup of posts.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, media, Politics

Tags: , , , ,

7 replies

  1. As the years progress, I dislike the reporting of the Australian more and more, and respect them and their opinions less and less.
    This also extends to number of certain news sites and other papers.
    I believe to an extent of anonymity on the internet. I blog my opinions, and think they are fair opinions, but I don’t want a potential (or current) employer (or other such person), reading it and trying to make trouble for me because of it. They are my opinions and I stand by them, but anyone else is free to disagree (or agree) with them as they see fit, and I really don’t approve of outing people. It feels kind of like following someone home and then posting their personal details on facebook. It’s not on, and it can cost people their livelihoods (or their personal freedoms).
    But most journos don’t seem to care about that. All they want is a story. Doesn’t matter who it hurts or what damage it does. MSM is really getting on my nerves this year.
    re the Annabel Crabb comment; Whom gets to decide whom is an extreme case? The media? Because they’ve shown such excellent judgement before – (the vilification of Lindy Chamberlain?)
    (Hmm. I need to get some sleep before this gets any crankier. I love reading blogs like this. I get additional information – and links, that I might not find on my own.)

  2. This whole controversy seems to be underpinned by a complete non-sequitur and a meaningless chant of “holding someone accountable”.
    The non-sequitur is that people who express a public opinion need to be “held accountable” in the first place. Why? The only way in which I’ve seen this justified is so that someone can launch an ad-hominem attack on someone else. So what if Anon. Q. Commentator is a member of the Elmo-for-President party? Or is the chairman of Elmo, Inc.? An argument is an argument — saying “of course they’d think that” is not a rebuttal or disproof. And it’s certainly not some fundamental human right.
    (Besides, anonymity has the disadvantage that in the absence of an identity, people will speculate about what axe you have, and why you are trying to grind it.)
    But the bigger question to me is not why, but how? What does “holding someone accountable” actually mean?
    And does anyone else find it vaguely threatening?

  3. And does anyone else find it vaguely threatening?

    No, but only because of the word ‘vaguely’. I read it as a pretty explicit threat: The Australian is testing the waters on being allowed to report on the identities and lives of Internet commentators, and it’s starting with one who has stated in the past that such a thing would silence him. It’s even testing a case on a duty to do so.

  4. What I find interesting is the fairly obvious, at least to me, double standard here.
    Consider two scenarios –
    1) A public servant blogs about policial topics or information related to his position. Journalists consider he should identify himself and be outed.
    2) A public servant approaches a journalist and provides them with information related to his position. The journalist publishes it. The public servant’s boss (ie government) demands to know the source of the “leak”. The journalist protects to the death the anonymity of their source.
    Anyone else failing to see the difference – apart from the reaction of the journalists?

  5. I think the privilege argument could be taken a lot further than you have.
    Being in a position where you can fearlessly reveal your opinions and behaviours is not something everyone has. Not everyone has an absolutely consistent persona with everyone they come in contact with, the founders of Google and Facebook notwithstanding. Nor can we all safely (or even comfortably) reveal everything that’s not absolutely secret to everyone.
    In a way I envy people who are so boringly mainstream that they can’t imagine offending anyone just by the way they are. But I realise that those people have enough power to insulate themselves from public disapproval, which is why they’ve never learned to fear it.
    Many people work for employers who have a “nothing controversial in the office” policy. Controversial in this sense is local – it’s what your workplace is uncomfortable with, and that can be hard to judge. It might not lead to immediate dismissal, but to negative reviews and being seen as “not part of the team”, which pushes you to the front of the redundancy queue.

  6. There’s an interesting contrast: Facebook/Google etc promote “real names everywhere” as making social networks available and friendly to the everyperson, when in fact it’s a privilege to be able and allowed to claim and share every thought and social connection that you have.
    There are attacks on pseudonymity/separation of communities from both directions: using pseudonyms is both portrayed as for elitist techheads and at the same time for people who are unsuitable to be allowed to participate in public discourse.

  7. Crikey came up with a really good response to this issue today:
    “But The Australian’s attack on him today?—?for that’s what it is?—?goes much further than the arcana of whether a public servant has complied with the APS Code of Conduct.
    Instead it seems to suggest public servants should not merely not express any views but not even hold them, which is either an extraordinary misinterpretation of the APS Code of Conduct by the journalist concerned or simply part of a what is a pretty gratuitous personal attack.
    Contrary to what The Australian seems to believe, public servants are permitted to vote and belong to political parties. They’re even permitted to stand for Parliament.”

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