Back in the day when I was in the Public Service, at a time when the only way to get your opinion into the media was via the Letters page of your newspaper, I was surprised by a lot of the misconceptions around public servants’ right to free expression.

The misconceptions weren’t so much on the part of non-bureaucrats, but among public servants themselves. There seemed a widespread view that public servants forfeited their right to espouse any sorts of political views, despite guidelines like the APS Code of Conduct, and its predecessor documents, making it clear that they were perfectly entitled to express themselves like everyone else, if so inclined, provided they adhered to some basic rules around confidentiality, conflict of interest and professional behaviour.

Later, as a then-blogger and bureaucrat, in a similar position to Grog’s Gamut, I always thought that, above and beyond the strict requirements of the APS Code of Conduct — which can be interpreted rather liberally (and shouldn’t be confused with the requirements of public servants using new media in their official capacity) — there was a basic set of tests for commenting on political or any other matters.

The first was a fundamental rule that every public servant must live and breathe, that your personal views must be strictly separate from your professional conduct. The second was never to comment on your own area of work, and more particularly never to use any information to which you were privy because of your position (which is likely to be a breach of the code of conduct anyway).

The third was to ensure there was no risk anyone interpreted your views as somehow representing the Government or your own Department. The fourth was never to make money from it, because there’s an APS requirement, an old-fashioned but sensible one in my view, that public servants shouldn’t have other sources of income (without formal approval) given the potential for conflict of interest.

I don’t regularly read Grog’s blog, he may be dismayed to know, so I’m not aware of whether he has ever breached what I regard as a basic sniff test of the public servant-blogger. He has indicated today that he has his own, quite similar, set of tests and has tried to consistently meet them. 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.

And bear in mind this is coming from a media outlet that was happy to rely on the leaks of a conservative public servant as part of its campaign against the Rudd Government. Apparently it’s fine for public servants to leak against Labor, but blog from a progressive point of view and it requires outing.

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. This media outlet routinely runs the commentary of “Jack the Insider” and reactionary economist, “Henry Thornton”. It also runs unbylined editorials. Presumably The Oz is in effect admitting that “Grog’s Gamut” is more influential than its own offerings, because it applies a different disclosure test in the matter of noms de plume.

I’m not sure what Grog’s reasons are for wanting to remain anonymous. Mine were simple. Apart from ensuring there was no risk my views could be taken as reflecting any sort of official line, the internet can be a deeply unpleasant place (and yes, let he who is without sin etc). Anonymity affords protection from people, and there are plenty of them, inclined to take online disputes offline or try to harm people they’ve argued with online.

And I’m not just talking about wingnuts and identity thieves. I’m aware of one case a decade ago in which someone in the Carnell Government here in the ACT, objecting to a public servant’s advocacy on a heritage issue, asked for and obtained the disciplining of the individual concerned by the Howard Government (The Australian appears to be angling for something similar to happen to Grog).

That argument immediately goes out the window if a person uses online anonymity to harass others or inappropriately attack people. But, again, I’m not aware of any evidence that Grog had forfeited his right to anonymity in that manner. And certainly none evinced by the media outlet that has targeted him.

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
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