Even if you haven’t read his blog, if you followed the media coverage of the election campaign there’s a pretty good chance you know about Grog’s Gamut. He’s the pseudonymous blogger whose pointed critique of the lack of policy questions from the press pack drew a lot of attention and sparked a debate, with journos and media bosses such as the ABC’s Mark Scott weighing in. Now, The Australian has deemed his identity to be news, and they also seem to have decided that public servants aren’t entitled to hold political opinions. I’d suggest they’re wrong on both counts.

James Massola wrote the story that let the world know who Grog is, including this effort to link Grog’s blogging to his role as a public servant:

The prolific blogger shows a strong preference for the ALP, despite the Public Service code of conduct stating that “the APS is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner”.

Grog has written an excellent response to Massola’s article, so go and read it. He clearly spells out the boundaries he put between his professional work and his blogging – and highlights how the pseudonym he chose to use was part of establishing those boundaries. Needless to say I write this as another pseudonymous blogger in a similar situation, so I can see exactly what Grog did and why.

I’m an academic rather than a public servant, but I’m bound by similar policies to Grog (although university policies are perhaps less specifically targeted at political activity than the public service’s code). As a private citizen, I’m entitled to hold any political opinions and engage in any political action. I’m entitled to communicate and publish any views I hold – but as an academic, this is complicated by the fact that as part of my role with the university I may engage in public comment about matters in my area of professional expertise. My employer wants me to do that and endorses my professional expertise – it’s one of the things that makes me of value to them. But this means that, when I’m offering personal views outside my area of expertise, I need to ensure that nobody confuses my views as a professional opinion or as views endorsed by my employer.

When I got into blogging about politics, I understood that I could write under my real name, in which case I’d need to attach a disclaimer – not only to every blog post I wrote, but every comment I posted at other blogs. Or I could write under an assumed name, in which case there would be no issues with needing to constantly reinforce the personal/professional distinction in my written work. It seems to me that Grog made a similar choice. So, I think any implication that Grog’s (alleged) partisan personal views compromise the integrity of his professional work is unfounded – and Grog himself has offered a sound defence with reference to the public service’s guidelines. So why out him?

The Australian’s media editor, Geoff Elliott, offered a justification, obviously anticipating the negative reaction that began to flow on social media as soon as the story became public:

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

Journalists and editors grant anonymity to sources and whistleblowers but

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.

Elliott begins his defence of the Massola story with a point that I think is fair enough – pseudonymous bloggers who are publishing only their opinions and analysis aren’t the same as sources and whistleblowers. Do they deserve the active protection of their identity? No.

But Elliott goes on to some much stronger assertions, invoking a public right and a journalistic duty. The argument isn’t just that there is no principle preventing the outing of a blogger like Grog, but that such an outing is inherently newsworthy. But what does it do to help inform the public?

Does it reveal some form of misconduct or other questionable behaviour? No – as I’ve discussed above, all the evidence suggests that Grog managed the personal/professional distinction appropriately. In fact, his outing if anything serves to make managing those boundaries more complicated. And aside from Massola’s paragraph about Grog’s apparent political leanings, the article doesn’t really focus on that argument.

Does it help the readers to understand and evaluate Grog’s work? I don’t see how. His blog is sitting right there. It contains his arguments and opinions. If a reader disagrees with anything he has said, they can critique those issues – who the person is that typed those views is irrelevant. And I’d emphasise the distinction between pseudonymity and anonymity here. If a person writes anonymously at a range of different sites, or under a range of different names, then there’s an issue with evaluating whether they’ve made inconsistent claims, changed their position to suit the argument they want to make, etc. If a person is writing under a single, coherent yet pseudonymous identity, then there’s no reason their stance on the issues is any less open to critique than a person writing under their real name. You can play the ball fine – not knowing who the author is only becomes a problem if you’d prefer to play the man.

Even taking an audience-driven view of what’s worthy of being called news, did the general public care who was the author of Grog’s Gamut? Grog has picked up a lot of attention among the media, both traditional and in its new online forms. But it’s all been pretty much inside baseball – it seems that the journos themselves have been a lot more interested in this ‘news’ than the average reader would be.

There doesn’t seem much justification for Elliott’s claim that there was a ‘duty’ to report this. The impact of this news on those who read it will probably be minimal, but for the person who has been outed they may be serious. Which seems to hint at the real issue behind the outing – a pseudonymous author was writing content that had confronted and challenged the quality of the traditional media, and the traditional media has responded by making that author’s life more complicated, despite the limited justification under any reasonable definition of news. There seems to be a lot more self-interest than public interest in the decision to run with this story.

UPDATE: Massola has written a summary of the reactions to his story.

UPDATE 2: Other posts on the outing from Dominic Knight at The Drum, Kim at Larvatus Prodeo, Tim Dunlop, Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy and Joshua Gans at Core Economics.

And Tim Burrowes at mUmBRELLA.

UPDATE 3: A couple more — Craig Thomler at eGov AU and reb at Gutter Trash.

UPDATE 4: One more link — from Crikey’s own former public servant, Bernard Keane. It’s paywalled, but here’s the punchline:

When teased out, the media’s argument about outing people — and this is certainly not limited to News Ltd — invariably falls back on a concept of the public interest that really amounts to nothing more than the fact that they think it’s of interest to the public. What particular context do we have now for Grog’s commentary that we didn’t have before? None, despite the best efforts of the journalist concerned to squeeze something relevant out of the blog. And, in any event, what is the issue that elevated Grog to public interest? Not his own blogging, but the media’s reaction to it (which can be readily summarised as “dish it out but can’t take it”), and Mark Scott’s in particular.

Rather than respond to the issues raised by Grog, which of course run counter to the line propounded by The Oz, they’ve simply launched a malicious, hypocritical ad hominem attack on him.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey