Tuesday 16 June 2009

The blogosphere versus The Times

Within a couple of hours, it is already clear that the Times is going to have something of a problem with the blogosphere over its decision to "out" the police blogger Night Jack, so ending his blog (though this had been suspended) and leaving the author facing disciplinary action.

An excellent post from Hopi Sen who acknowledges blog anonymity is complex, but is angry about this one. He thinks The Times owes Night Jack an apology - and is calling on others to lobby Daniel Finkelstein, comment editor and chief of the excellent Comment Central blog.

On the right, the usually mild mannered Lord Iain Dale of the Blogosphere finds The Times report one of "vomit-inducing hypocrisy.

There will - I am sure - be more.

One crucial distinction which I would make.

I think the court's decision against a right to privacy for the blogger is almost certainly the right one. I personally find it rather difficult to see how a right of that kind could be framed without being unduly expansive.

But the question about The Times' decision to out the blogger - and the reasons they have given for doing so - is an entirely different issue. If such cases need to be judged case-by-case, then the action taken by the newspaper seems mean spirited, disproportionate and seems to me at odds with The Times championing of free speech online and whistleblowing in a range of other cases.

What will also be interesting will be to see whether and how the newspaper feels it ought to respond to a discussion that could become a rather heated one in illuminating some old and new media arguments. Like all major papers, it has itself sought to be a pioneer and champion of the innovative use of blogging. This could be a significant own goal on that front.

I do not expect the debate will all be old v new media: many will think that is analogous to journalism seeking to "out" another newspaper's sources after a major scoop. Again, one can imagine cases where a legitimate public interest defence can be mounted - as with reporting how The Telegraph got its expensive expenses scoop - but it is probably another controversial battlefield.

The Independent was among newspapers to know the blogger's identity but to agree not to reveal it, in this interview with the author, in which he discussed the approach he has taken to blogging anonymously and the consequences of being outed.

UPDATE: I will add links to some of the most interesting posts about this over the next couple of days.

Monday Books, which is to publish Night Jack, has a detailed account, and is worried about other insider police blogs - Inspector Gadget and PC Bloggs. [CORRECTION: They aren't publishing Night Jack, but have published the others].

Their justification is interesting: "In April Mr Horton was awarded an Orwell Prize for political writing," writes Frances Gibb. "But the award judges were not aware that he was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions." This is nicely worded. I assume he changed a lot of the details in every post he wrote, but one thing's for sure - revealing his identity and the force he works for will make it a lot easier to 'trace back to genuine prosecutions'.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics sees it as more evidence of a cold climate for whistleblowers.

Chicken Yoghurt is plotting revenge on journalistic sources.

John Cook of Gawker thinks the ruling 'a good thing', and sees nothing wrong with The Times' reporting, arguing that anonymity is often (but not always) a form of cowardice.

Arnie of the Right Student is never buying The Times again.

Fleet Street Blues thinks the short-term downside is outweighed by a blow against creeping privacy laws. (But is praising The Times for challenging the injunction different from their reporting the story?).


Daniel Finkelstein of The Times believes that "when someone publishes then they might reasonably expect that others might take an interest in their identity", and that the identity of a public servant revealing confidences becomes a legitimate matter of interest: "What, say, if it turned out that NightJack wasn't actually a detective at all? Or that he was Sir Ian Blair? Are we really saying that his identity isn't a public matter?"

Guido Fawkes believes this "is clearly correct in law" but thinks The Times has behaved shabbily, and is campaigning to end leader writer anonymity.

Tom Harris concurs: "NightJack didn’t defame anyone, he didn’t compromise any of his investigations. There was no public interest in his true identity being revealed. I would argue the reverse, in fact". He says NightJack's right to remain anonymous "should have been enough for The Times. (Harris may well be among those arguing an ethical, rather than legal, prohibition but does not make this clear).

Oliver Kamm, another Times leader writer, can not see any basis for Night Jack's legal case, and can't understand the bloggers' consensus against the newspaper.

David T of Harry's Place doesn't challenge that: "much though it pains me to admit it, Eady’s judgement was a good on, on these policy grounds. But The Times…Frankly, they’ve acted like the little boy who snitches on the fifth formers smoking tabs behind the bikesheds".

The Guardian leader writers agree (though are rather gentle in their criticism of The Times): "This ruling was as inevitable as it was unwelcome". But The Times was striking "a blow to new media, on behalf of the old".

And HeresyCorner also thinks "It is possible to regret deeply The Times' behaviour without wishing the blunt instrument of the law to have prevented it ... Rather than as an ally in the cause of bringing important matters before the public - in the finest traditions of journalism - [The Times] prefer to treat Night Jack as a story in himself. They disgraced themselves with this tabloid-style behaviour".

Jean Seaton, who chaired the Orwell prize panel, does go further. The BBC reports that she thinks the judgement "puzzling" and "chilling". Seaton writes in The Guardian that "The Times has shut down a voice" (and notes the Orwellian rewriting of history as the blog disappears). She argues that the Times' accusation that the blog revealed material about identifiable court cases was not founded, as the cases were disguised, until The Times published the detective's name.

A Rabbit's Eye View of the Hyperborean North thinks the "schoolboy glee of Times Media Correspondent, Patrick Foster and colleagues" in unmasking the blogger is a matter of shame.

Alix Mortimer of The People's Republic of Mortimer, also shortlisted for the Orwell prize, is angry that "Not Orwell himself could have dreamt of such a shitty betrayal of human decency, on the part of both judge and journalist" ... "When Nightjack won the Orwell Prize we all chuckled about how much Orwell would have appreciated having a secret policeman win a prize with his name on it. The final twist in the tale is sinister beyond a liberal’s wildest nightmares".

The (anonymous) Australian ScepticLawyer finds The Times action "petty and malicious ... There’s a suspicion in my mind that this journalist thought to himself, Let’s bring down a blogger who is writing something that is interesting and exciting".

Chris Dillow thinks the anger at Justice Eady is misdirected, because he is right in law and because anonymity can be pernicious. Dillow has an original take: "Who ever came away from Night Jack's blog thinking less of the police? Who ever came away from listening to the unlamented Ian Blair thinking more of them? ... let’s be clear what the best solution is here. It is not to give whistleblowers anonymity, but to give employees a right to free speech".

Curly's Corner Shop has "no real issue with the judgement ... but I do have a big issue with Patrick Foster’s decision to pursue this story with a determination to expose Night Jack. Just what have the public or News International gained by this story, and why was Foster so interested in a few tales on a crime blog that gained readers at a phenomenal rate?"

Septicisle is among those to note the clash between The Times' engagement with bloggers and their outing of Night Jack and, earlier, The Girl With the One Track Mind (by the Sunday Times) "who was outed in a fashion which would have shamed the tabloids" (And here is the email the newspaper sent to the blogger to inform her that they would report her identity).

Back to Night Jack: One glimmer of good news is that the writer's employers - having issued a written warning - are not taking further action ("unless anything else came out"). Not that The Times would have known that when they reported their story.

So there we have it. It is indeed "the blogosphere versus The Times". There is only a small (if vocal) minority attacking the legal judgement itself. But there is a broad consensus that, while The Times may have had the right to unmask the blogger, they ought not to have done so. That is also very strongly the view of responses to Finkelstein's own article on The Times website.

Finkelstein and Kamm are no doubt expressing their personal views sincerely (and both do emphasise the question of law rather more than those of journalistic ethics) but they appear to have very little support from those who are not employed by their newspaper.

1 comment:

Bertie Humbug's Ranto-O-Matic said...

Yep, the consensus is that Finkelstein got it utterly wrong in his dreadful treatment of NightJack.