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Jan 8, 2009

Outing 'Sharon Gould': the hoaxer's identity revealed

This morning I was released from my obligations of confidentiality. I can now report for the first time that the speculation has it right, writes Margaret Simons.

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It has been all over the internet since yesterday afternoon — the allegation, backed by some convincing evidentiary trails, that the “Sharon Gould” hoaxer is freelance journalist and activist Katherine Wilson. This morning I was released from my obligations of confidentiality. I can now report for the first time that the speculation has it right. Katherine Wilson is Sharon Gould.

For more on how people worked it out, and who had it first, see my blog.

There is a complicating factor, and I know this is beginning to sound like a soap.

Wilson is pregnant and, according to the midwife who is with her, due to go into labour at any moment. This will of course affect her ability to participate in the public debate over the next few days. I’m sure she will be back and speaking for herself before too long.

This morning, she wrote me this e-mail:

Dear Margaret,

It appears circumstance has forced my hand, and I have to consent for Crikey to reveal my identity. As you warned me (in no uncertain terms!), and as we discussed at length, this was always going to be a possibility, even if I didn’t initially think it was likely. I’ve no more to say on the content of the hoax: I’ve said what I wanted to say, and it’s had a good run. Despite its flaws, it has achieved many of its aims, even if other aims are unsuccessful or not fully understood in some circles.

While I agree with Leslie Cannold’s excellent analysis in this morning’s Age (I do think the exercise is justified), I also think some of the ethical criticisms raised in Crikey comments — and even by Windschuttle himself — are valid and worthy of analysis. If possible I’d like it on public record that the title given to the Quadrant article was not one I chose, and the finished article was not the first submitted. (The first twelve paragraphs were removed.) I’d also like it understood that I have a silent number and am silenced on the electoral roll and don’t wish to be contacted.

Yours, Katherine.

In case anyone should think Wilson’s imminent labour is convenient timing it is worth pointing out that when she submitted the hoax article to Quadrant early last year, she was not pregnant. She had no control over when (or if) it would be published. Unwittingly, Windschuttle has brought the controversy on at a time when his antagonist may have to depart the field at any moment.

Some on the blogosphere are making a point of the fact that, like many other freelance journalists, Wilson has been an occasional contributor to Crikey. That is not how I met her and her contributions have been handled by the editors at the time without any involvement by me. I read them, if at all, when they were published. Wilson has also been a co-editor of Overland magazine, and a contributor to The Age, The Australian, The Courier Mail, Good Weekend, Art Monthly, Griffith Review and other publications. A few years ago she was also a frequent contributor to blogs, particularly Larvatus Prodeo.

Wilson is also an activist, particularly on issues surrounding new biotechnologies, including Genetically Modified foods. As is clear from her Diary of a Hoax and her public statement yesterday these issues have been part of her motivation for the hoax. In fact, her identity does not really shed any fresh light on her motivation, which has already been spelt out (link to Diary of a Hoax).

How did this story come to me?

I met Wilson when she was co-editor of the left-wing Overland magazine in 2003. I was invited to give the Overland lecture during the promotional activities for my book The Meeting of the Waters.  I was introduced to her that evening, but we did not speak at any length.

In case anyone wants to make something of the fact that I was addressing a left wing magazine forum, I would say that in the same year I also addressed the Sydney Institute, numerous writers’ festivals, and indeed any forum that gave me an opportunity, as is the way with writers who have books to promote.

The next time Wilson and I had contact was about eighteen months later. I am not sure of the exact date. She contacted me wanting my opinion on some matters to do with journalistic practice. We corresponded by e-mail and met, I think, two times over coffee. Mostly, we argued. Her politics are far to the left of my own, (although she says that she sees herself as “not fully left … and not a neat ideological package”). I had some harsh things to say about Overland at the time (which she had recently left. Overland is now under fresh management.)

The arguments were at times fierce. They circulated around the boundary between journalism and activism. I remember saying to her at one stage “there is nothing wrong with being an activist, Kath, but it is not journalism.”

But although the arguments were heated, they were also intelligent, engaged and I think respectful. Wilson is not easy to write off and I am not the only one who thinks so.

Mark Davis, the author of Gangland, writing about how baby boomers squeeze out new and different voices, named Wilson as one of the young writers who were “economically and culturally marginalised in Australia, pilloried in the media, valorised only insofar as their youthfulness can be commoditised, but too rarely sought out for their ideas and opinions.”

Davis said such writers, including Wilson, had: “a determination to help set Australian political and cultural agendas”.

A fair bit of the debate in the blogosphere and on Crikey in recent days has been about the quality of the hoax. Was it really a good one, or not? It’s a bit of a weird debate, in my view, but whatever your opinion you would have to acknowledge that Wilson has now been published and quoted widely and come to national attention, and in a small way helped to set a cultural agenda.

She has several times over the last few days expressed amazement that Windschuttle was accusing me of being the hoaxer.

“Why on earth does he think someone like you would do this? What possibly could be your motivation?”

Hoax, or “culture jamming” as she has referred to it, is the act of someone who doesn’t believe their point can be made in other ways.

Personally I wouldn’t have done this hoax, even if it had occurred to me. As a journalist it is no part of my job description to lie.

But then again, I have other forums and I am not an activist.

While saying I would not have done it, I am also aware that hoaxing can be cruel, damaging and deceptive, but also illuminating. Ask the Chaser boys and their fans. Their satire relies heavily on hoax.

My next contact with Wilson was when she was enrolled at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology doing an honours degree. I was a sessional tutor there at the time, and she asked me to be her supervisor. Wilson has given me permission to say that her thesis was on our old tangling topic — Advocacy versus Journalism. She describes herself as “still unresolved” on the issues we argued about.

That project was all done and dusted and examined (by others) at the end of 2007. Her results were good. We had a celebratory drink at the end of 2007, with another student, to mark the conclusion.

After that I didn’t see Wilson. We swapped about half a dozen e-mails during the time between our drink in December 2007, and three and a half weeks ago when she told me about her hoax on Windschuttle and offered me the story. This was the first I knew of it. The hoax article had, to her amazement, been accepted and was, as she understood it, on its way to the printers. She was wondering how to publicise the fact of the hoax.

I have written before, on my blog, here and here about my decision making process at that point, and have nothing to add other than saying that my decision to receive the information in confidence and sit on it for a while did not alter the outcome of the hoax itself — only when and how it was publicised.

I thought it was a legitimate news story. If I was wrong about that then after this week I have lots of company. It has made front pages around the nation.

I don’t agree with everything that Wilson has to say. In fact our contacts have been marked by disagreement more than agreement.

Nevertheless, I regard Wilson as an unusual and talented woman. She is passionate. If I were an editor of a metro newspaper (God forbid) I would probably give her a column, and expect it to be a constant pain in the bum, and constantly edgy and controversial — a good thing in a columnist, it is generally agreed. I forbear from linking to examples. At present, all of the truly controversial columnists are on the right.

The editorial crew at Crikey learnt the identity of Wilson for the first time this morning. Jonathan Green knew I had a story of some kind just before Christmas. I told the acting editor of Crikey and Green (who is on holiday) the exact nature of that story on Monday of this week. There is no Crikey “team” behind the construction of the hoax, as alleged by Windschuttle. I am a freelancer on retainer to Crikey. That’s why Crikey got the story.

I am sure that Katherine Wilson will have more to say for herself as soon as she is able. She has some questions to answer. So does Keith Windschuttle.

I have told her that I think the media have so far treated the hoaxer very fairly.

I hope I am still saying that in a month’s time.

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21 comments

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21 thoughts on “Outing ‘Sharon Gould’: the hoaxer’s identity revealed

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    Katherine possibly misunderstands the capacity for campaigner analysis. She hadn’t written for a while so a good prospect of going under cover. She had the record on very good stories on the politics of genetically modified organisms which appeal to greenies like moi.

    As I was saying on Marg’s blog I can demonstrate I had it by 4.32 pm on Tuesday under my “Mmm” comment, but earlier actually as I read it early arvo at the local job agency instead of doing my job applications. Ha ha. Which is where I ought to be right now, and God bless Barry Cohen for being symapthetic in a piece in The Oz in mid December being an ex Federal ALP minister when unemployment was stalking the land.

    I was thinking as I read the lead story – who wrote those strong GMO stories for crikey in the last year. Then I was trying to remember is it Murphy, is it Kate. As it was I googled the right name first time and when I saw “co-editor of Overland” on the face of the search it was doh. Motive being a rival journal. Skills being an editor. Skills having written on the topic. Motive being of the progressive side of things. And also Modus Operandi. KW’s articles showed depth of research, which was a plank of the hoax too.

    But you never can be sure. I thought about blogging it for myself but hey I thought the traffic should go to those that did the project so I put it in a comment. To be honest I was also thinking, if I’m wrong, or it’s denied I could be sued for defamation so I left it as speculation. Bit lawyerly coward there but yeah it’s true.

  2. Rick Roush

    By an interesting coincidence, I was interviewed by the Age about Gould’s Quadrant hoax a few days ago. I cannot remember even hearing of Karen Wilson before today, but have now learned that she has a protected website about me, which came as quite a surprise (http://katherinewilson.wordpress.com/2008/02/29/professor-rick-roush/). Why is it protected? No idea, but then, I don’t know what Wilson has written there.

    The Age reporter has brought to my attention that Wilson has a previous article in Crikey that mentions me and others. It has several errors, of fact and interpretation, including various accusations. Wilson never contact ed me for comment, and I doubt she contacted the others attacked in her piece. is there a mechanism for me to ask Crikey for a correction?

    Rick Roush

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