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Sep 28, 2010

Simons: it wasn’t unethical to name Grog’s Gamut

As for Grog's Gamut, I don’t think the Oz has done anything unethical. Just mean. But there are other questions to be answered.

A great deal has already been said about the rights and wrongs of The Australian’s decision to out the engaging blogger Grog’s Gamut, and reveal him to be Canberra public servant Greg Jericho. Quite a few people have asked if I have any opinions. I do.

I don’t think the Oz has done anything unethical. Just mean.

And the affair highlights some interesting and largely encouraging media trends.

First, we are seeing a new career path into journalism opening up. Whatever else happens to him over the next few weeks, it would surprise me if Jericho doesn’t field a few calls from media organisations wanting to take him on.

He has demonstrated a rare incisiveness and fluency with the written form, and a good understanding of how to use social media. Perhaps journalists are jealous.

It seems like only yesterday that people were asking how one found material worth reading on the web. Social media, as visiting US journalist Jan Schaffer said at the New News conference earlier this month,  is a game changer. Anyone with good material can find an audience, and any audience can find good material.

Which can be a mixed blessing. As Jericho said in his response to the outing: “I guess the lesson here is if you want to blog anonymously, don’t do it effectively.” Once you begin to have an impact, people will want to know who you are. Who you are becomes a story, and everyone who writes knows what a powerful thing a story can be.

There is nothing automatically wrong with outing a pseudonymous writer, whether they be a blogger, a novelist or a journalist.

Some people have referred to the journalistic convention of protecting sources, and suggested that what The Australian has done is therefore unethical. Sorry, but that’s bollocks.

Journalists who agree to keep a source confidential are, for reasons of perceived public interest, agreeing to compromise their core commitment to “disclose all relevant facts”. They do so in the interests of being able to bring otherwise secret facts to light.

They are essentially withholding a piece of truth — the identity of the source — because they believe that getting other information out there is more important. Or that is what careful and ethical journalists are doing, in any case. Agreeing to hide a source’s identity is always a significant ethical decision.

The essence of the ethical obligation is an agreement between reporter and source. There is not, and should not be, any automatic presumption of anonymity.

So far as I know, Jericho made no agreement with any journalist about confidentiality, so I don’t think it was unethical to out him.

The other comparison people have made is with newspaper editorials, including The Australian’s recent controversial efforts. Editorials do not carry by lines. I think this is a much more interesting point.

The justification for anonymous editorials has always been the notion that they represent the institutional voice of the masthead. The idea is that the newspaper has a history, a voice and a personality over and above and apart from those who work for and edit it.

Thus, in those mastheads where such things are taken seriously, editorial writers will take care to be consistent in their line. A newspaper will not argue in favour of the National Broadband Network one day and against the next, even if this reflects the opinions of the relevant writers. Even a change of editor will not necessarily cause a rapid about-turn in an editorial line.

A masthead changes its opinion only gradually, or after due argument and explanation.

The idea of the institutional voice may seem quaint to the Twitter generation, but it is alive, if not well.  When comedian Catherine Deveny was sacked from her Age column because of indiscreet Tweeting, the newspaper felt it should have some say in the relationship she had with her Twitter audience — because she was also part of the institutional personality and presence that was The Age.

Now, I happen to think the idea of a media institutional voice has had its day.

As the Grog’s Gamut rise to prominence demonstrates, writers no longer need media institutions in order to reach their audience. More than ever before, a masthead amounts to little more than the relationships its writers have with their audiences. And those relationships belong mainly to the writers and the audience members, not to some abstract institutional personality.

This is one of the reasons why journalists should not agree to anything other than sensible limitations on their right to participate in social media. Give up your social media presence, and you cede all power, and your independent agency as a journalist, to your employer.

So perhaps it is time that we had more transparency around who and how newspaper editorials are written. But the necessary extension of that argument would be that perhaps people such as Jericho should be prepared to be outed, and not whinge too much about it.

Blogging and Tweeting are public acts. That is why they are potentially powerful.

So I don’t think it was unethical to out Grog’s Gamut. But there is no doubt that it was a bit mean.

The justification given by The Australian — that Grog’s Gamut had influenced policy at the ABC — is fairly hollow. The evidence was a line in a speech that ABC managing director Mark Scott gave in a at the Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s New News 2010 conference earlier this month.

I organised the conference, and compared the speech. The name Grog’s Gamut came up as part of a general point about response to criticism of election coverage. Nothing is added to our understanding of what occurred at the ABC by knowing Jericho’s identity.

Nor is there anything in the claim that Jericho has done anything improper. Nothing about his role as a public servant precludes him from engaging in normal political and public activities. The Australian looks pathetic and pretentious for pretending otherwise.

The unanswered question is — why now? Jericho claims that journalist James Massola has known his identity for almost a year. I rang Massola yesterday evening to ask if this was true.

But Massola, like Jericho, is not doing interviews at present.

But I think we all know the reason. Grog’s Gamut’s increasing public prominence made his identity a story — if only to journalists and politically engaged Twitterers. A year ago, it wasn’t a story.

This was just a good yarn — and all journalists like writing good yarns.  If you doubt that it was a story, then look at the reaction.

The Australian would be better off just publishing it, and dropping all the silly swagger about duty and public interest. The comparisons to writers such as Helen Demidenko and Darville are also nonsense. Demidenko pretended to be someone she was not. Jericho simply declined to say who he was.

Several outcomes are possible now. Grog’s Gamut may be silenced. He may use a new pseudonym. He may move in to professional journalism.

Personally, I hope we don’t lose him from public life. He is a good read.

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49 comments

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49 thoughts on “Simons: it wasn’t unethical to name Grog’s Gamut

  1. Seneca

    To use your term, Margaret, “Bollocks”. Publishing a pseudonymous blogger’s name without his/her permission is unethical. By doing so, the Oz is diminished even further as a responsible news outlet.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Privacy doesn’t count then Margaret? Surely the journalists so-called code of ethics only means journalists and not any old blogger?

    Last year the Australian decided to defame me in an editorial, I have no idea which moron at the paper wrote it and I will never be told. They had written the first of many editorials claiming we have to breach the law and send refugees away and that to my mind is genocidal.

  3. reb of Hobart

    “It wasn’t unethical…”

    Whatever….. 🙄

    It hasn’t stopped The Oz from just “making stuff up” (again) in order to try an garner support for Massalo’s unwarranted attack on Grog’s Gamut.

    Today the Oz alleges that James Massalo has been “threatened” by twitter users following the publication of his tirade! But doesn’t bother to back this bizarre claim up with any evidence…

    http://guttertrash.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/the-australian-accused-of-just-making-stuff-up-again/

  4. edwardb

    What about Henry Thornton? Jack the Insider? Surely, if there is no ethical conundrum, the Oz is obligated to say who they are now?

  5. Daniel

    Being defamed by The Australian is basically a badge of honour, Marilyn. It means you’re doing the right thing. 🙂

  6. Daniel

    Also reminder that Christian Kerr currently writes for The Australian. His previous journo gig was writing for Crikey under the pseudonym “Hillary Bray”. His reports were described by Stephen Mayne as “insight from a government insider”.

  7. Julius

    Margaret Simons: you are right about it being acceptable to name Greg Jericho as the otherwise pseudonymous blogger and right about the unnecessary humbug that the Australian has indulged in.

    If Greg Jericho was doing something wrong qua public servant in blogging as he has been doing then it was certainly right for him to be outed. If not, and he wants to remain pseudonymous, then he should not confide in anyone he can’t trust, and his complaint, if he has one, is against James Massola.

    If someone pretends to know who I am and publishes widely that I am the well-known retired clergyman Bill Knox then I can’t complain. If I am Bill Knox I can say that I am but, next time I choose a pseudonym I won’t disclose it to that rat Jimmy Blabbermouth; or I can coolly deny it and claim that I am indeed Julius Caesar Trumpington, or not, as the fancy takes me without my basic honesty being in question any more than if I claim (pseudonymously) on a blog that I am 115 years old and remember well what Billy Hughes said at the first big referendum campaign rally on conscription.

    (To make it clear: if my true name was Dr John Smyth, and, using that name in a blog and correctly identifying myself, I put my authority as well known chemist behind some blatant falsehood I would indeed put my basic honesty in question).

    It is a pity that the Australian has obscured the simple truth that the blogger’s identity and occupation was clearly a small, but still newsworthy, fact which it was a newspaper’s right to publish, with rather more justification than the latest news about a footballer’s knee.

  8. Julius

    @ EDWARDB

    “What about Henry Thornton? Jack the Insider? Surely, if there is no ethical conundrum, the Oz is obligated to say who they are now?”

    1. What possible *obligation* does the Oz have to publish such information? What is your reasoning? I suspect you are too intellectually lazy, even if capable, to give a sensible, let alone convincing, answer to that, because

    2. You are obviously too lazy to use Google to find the answer which stares you in the face.

  9. klewso

    It’s like the last episode of Zorro :- his being cornered and unmasked, finally, by Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia, and the rest of the “Limited News garrison”, isn’t it?

  10. Jackol

    To me the issue is more of ‘where is the public interest’.

    As a public servant, Grog was/is obliged to keep his professional and personal views separate – his pseudonym was a good mechanism for doing that, and there is no suggestion that he improperly managed the dissociation between the two.

    As a private citizen, Grog is entitled to maintain his privacy.

    The only justification for ‘outing’ him would be if there was a reasonable public interest perspective in doing so. The Australian has offered up some piss weak rationales (just as channel 7 offered up risible justifications for their outing of David Campbell) – the weakness of their offerings is fairly damning evidence that there was no public interest being served by their actions.

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