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.