An unnecessary unmasking that does more than just damage The Times’ reputation

with 6 comments

Anonymity in reporting did not start with blogging. But anonymous writing has exploded since the arrival of the web. Whether it is blogs, comments below blogs, comments beneath comment pieces or articles, or indeed articles themselves, anonymity – or in most cases pseudonyms – has characterized much of this first phase of democratic self-publishing.

There are certainly downsides to anonymity. Not knowing who has written something deprives comments and blogs of context. It creates another hurdle for the reader to climb to establish a piece’s credibility. It can relieve the author of feelings of responsibility. This can make the writer feel freer to write whatever they want, which can also lead him/her to extend their language or their accusations further than they might were their identity known.

There are also some big upsides to anonymity. One of these is the remarkable flowering of many new voices on the internet. This explosion of new, previously unheard voices is not only a good thing for political writing – as recognised by this year’s special Orwell Prize for blogging – but a good thing for society and for public understanding. It is part of the reinvention of journalism. Previously, people had to take their stories to a professional journalist and rely on that journalist, and his/her publication, to publish. This is no longer the case. They can publish it themselves.

Enormous numbers of people have taken up this opportunity. At BlogPulse’s last count there were 110,175,548 blogs published on the net. In the UK, there are blogs about care working (like Tanya Corbett’s), about magistrates (like The law West of Ealing Broadway), about local politics (like Bob Piper’s), and about driving an ambulance (like Random Acts of Reality).

But we are still at the very early stages of this reinvention. As the Media Standards Trust discovered with the 87 entries to this year’s Orwell Prize for Blogging (we, the Media Standards Trust – run the Orwell Prize with Political Quarterly and the Orwell Trust, but have no role in the judging), some blogs have a way to go before they could be said to have achieved Orwell’s aim of making political writing into an art. And there are clearly many unanswered questions about the responsibilities of bloggers to their work, to their colleagues, to those they work with and to the public.

Night Jack’s blog about his experiences as a policeman, which he submitted to this year’s special Orwell Prize for Blogging, was – the judges unanimously agreed – ‘wonderful’ and a clear winner. In their judgment ‘’The insight into the everyday life of the police that Jack Night’s wonderful blog offered was – everybody felt – something which only a blog could deliver, and he delivered it brilliantly’. Their decision was subsequently welcomed by many others. In an editorial The Guardian wrote that although Night Jack had stopped blogging after receiving the prize, ‘what is already there should be read by anyone who has a view on policing… This is life as the police see it. Read it’. His blogs not only illuminated the daily grind of a policeman, but shed light on the legal and judical process – something that has sadly disappeared from most newspapers with the decline of court reporting.

Night Jack was careful to disguise his own identity, and that of the people and cases he blogged about. He even stopped blogging having won the prize, conscious that his increased profile would make it impossible to continue. He did not seek to make any money from his blogs – then or since. He did not come to the awards ceremony. He donated his £3,000 prize money to the Police Benevolent Fund.

Then this week, more than two months after Night Jack stopped blogging, The Times published his real name, his picture, the police force in which he worked, and the name of one of the people in a case about which he wrote.

The Times justified its actions by suggesting that it was exposing the malpractice of a police officer. It did not say anything he had written was inaccurate, nor did it explain the public interest in publishing his real name – as opposed simply to telling the police force for which he worked (which it did) and letting them take disciplinary action (which they are). Why did it then need to publish it to an audience of millions? By publishing his identity the paper has not only prevented the continuation of the Night Jack blog (in its previous form), but significantly raised the risks of others who may be writing, or thinking about writing, from the frontline of public life.

By taking the decision to expose Night Jack The Times has almost certainly deprived us of voices that would otherwise have spoken out. It will probably have made whistleblowers and anonymous sources think twice before releasing information. It has, in other words, done a good job of suppressing free speech and freedom of expression.

In 1984 George Orwell wrote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It appears that The Times has, in this instance, taken on the role of a large boot, stamping on a little but important voice. Is this something for which a venerable 225-year-old newspaper would like to be remembered?

Written by Martin Moore

June 18th, 2009 at 10:44 am

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6 Responses to 'An unnecessary unmasking that does more than just damage The Times’ reputation'

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  1. Excellent thanks Martin.


    21 Jun 09 at 1:56 am

  2. I wrote an open letter to the Times last week; I was fairly cross about this. I am most proud of two parts"On net your story destroyed news. Far more has been deleted from the internet, from the sum of what we can read, than you have added. You have completely reversed your purpose, become the anti-newspaper."and the final paragraph,"There is a proud history in newspapers of journalists going to court, even being imprisoned, to protect an anonymous source. The Times is the first newspaper I have seen to go to court to expose an anonymous source."A theme it seems of the Times doing exactly the reverse of what a responsible news organ should have done.

    Richard Dale

    21 Jun 09 at 11:51 pm

  3. I wrote hostile comments on the Times both about the original story and Finkelstein's column on it. Neither have been posted.

    John McClane

    22 Jun 09 at 6:50 am

  4. Quite so. I emailed the editor to say they would never get another penny of my money. No reply

    Elby the Beserk

    22 Jun 09 at 8:47 am

  5. @robwindow – thanks@ Richard, John and Elby – thank you both for your comments and telling me about the Times. It also seems as though, since last Thursday, it hasn't said anything publicly. Despite the letters sent, the articles published elsewhere and the storm online

    Martin Moore

    22 Jun 09 at 1:22 pm

  6. I too emailed The Times. I expected no reply and was not disappointed.

    Blank Xavier

    23 Jun 09 at 2:19 pm

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