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Sep 29, 2010

To pseudonym or not to pseudonym?

Crikey readers have their say on the Grog's Gamut debacle.


Grog’s Gamut:

Matthew Lee writes: Re. “Simons: it wasn’t unethical to name Grog’s Gamut” (yesterday, item 3). Margaret Simons, in what is a pretty reasonable piece, gives a pretty standard run down of journalistic practice when it comes to anonymous sources i.e:

“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.”

I think what Grogs did, by choosing to write under a pseudonym, conforms pretty closely to Margaret’s outline of journalistic method. The truth he withheld was his name and the specific part of the public service he worked in. The “otherwise secret facts” are his take on politics and the journosphere. From my perspective, knowing Grog’s name and job haven’t changed one dot of what I think of his contributions.

Obviously it’s a bit different for an individual to make these decisions about themselves, but then again, why are journos the people who get to decide if he is outed? To me this is where the discussion of journalists’ use of anonymous sources comes in — they have, by so easily giving anonymity to even senior politicians (think the use of leaks around budget time as a form of media management,) utterly debased any claim they’d have to being the arbiters of who gets to be anonymous or pseudonymous.

Furthermore, in blogging culture, pseudonymity is an accepted practice, used by many different people for different reasons. Those of us that “entered the internet” via blogging culture are utterly relaxed with that, we consider it normal and are used to using our own judgement in these matters.

Chris O’ Regan writes: Margaret Simons is wrong when she asserts that the “outing” of Grog’s Gamut is not unethical — because she is presuming that the only code of ethics that applies here is the ethics of a journalist. As he points out, Grog’s identity wasn’t strictly speaking a secret before The Australian published it — it was already known to a circle of bloggers and other acquaintances.

Anyone could have found it out or published with only a small degree of effort, but those who knew him chose to respect the confidence. I almost feel sorry for James Massola, who was obviously disoriented by the idea that someone’s online identity could be an open secret within the circles of the Media140 conference, but not in the general public — but journalists, unfortunately, seem constitutionally incapable of understanding such fine distinctions.

Any blogger or tweeter who had met Grog could have outed him, if they thought it were somehow necessary. But clearly, they were content as bloggers were to let his work stand on its merits, without wondering unduly if the identity of the source could have prejudiced the analysis somehow (and even after the ‘outing’, nobody has demonstrated that it has — making the whole thing supremely pointless as well as nasty).

The point as raised by several journalists that Grog was ‘taking risks’ with his identity by attending a conference in person sounds quite ridiculous to those who are acquainted with the conventions of the online world.

The general principle at issue here is whether pseudonymous speech counts as free speech (keeping in mind that the use of pseudonyms to make provocative or insightful political points is as old as writing itself), and whether people have a right to express themselves politically without worrying for their job or professional reputation. 

The Australian, and journalists generally, are mostly unappreciative of the value in having ordinary digital citizens partake in the debate, but despite all of the (legitimate) fears and complaining that trolls, flamers, and anonymous abuse gives rise to, it’s clear that, as Grog himself demonstrates, they have a valuable role to play in the public discourse.  Whether a “professional” will ever appreciate that or not is another question.

Rundle on Venezuela:

Luke Hughes writes: Re. “Rundle: Venezuelan election coverage shows world doesn’t give a stuff about global poor” (yesterday, item 4). Crikey, please please spare us Guy Rundle and his wacky polemics. Yes, Guy, we know you read wider than most of us intellectual heathens who weren’t educated in Sweden but when you burst into print with your wacky-left conspiracy theory rants, do a little more work than you did yesterday when fulminating about Chavez’ Venezuela.

A quick scan through Rundle’s horrible Western media, whose “untold numbers of articles never feature” the facts he enthusiastically presented yesterday, er, actually did present them, as a casual browse through Factiva points out.

And here’s a few others facts Camarada Guy oddly neglected to mention, notably that while Chavez has been in power: the oil price averaged between $US12-15 when Comrade Hugo took over in early 1999 (not 1998) and is now averaging around $US70, having peaked and sustained just shy of $US150 mid-presidency. That is at the very least a six-fold revenue bonanza for Chavez, about which a very strong argument could be mounted that far from advancing OPEC member Venezuela, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, Chavez has mightily squandered this bounty. Perhaps Guy’s oversight is explained by another measure Rundle failed to point out as he frothed at the mouth of the Western media that oddly hasn’t yet made his acquaintance.

Transparency International, those monitors of global corruption, rank Venezuela as second only to Haiti as the most corrupt country in the Americas, and 162 of 180 nations worldwide.

Guy — and Hugo — need to try harder.

Andrew Self writes: I have felt the urge to write an email in about Rundle’s article on Venezuela. It is possible the best English language media analysis I have read in a very long time. And I read a great deal as I am doing my PhD on that very topic.

Guy Rundle must be whole heartedly congratulated for this excellent piece, devoid of all the over emotional, partisan and ideological rubbish proliferated in both the mainstream, and not so mainstream sources. I would like to have seen maybe a bit more analysis on the tensions within the state and between it and civil society, however I understand in that short space it may not have been possible.

I will be purchasing a Crikey subscription as soon as I get paid after reading that article!

Climate change and a carbon price:

Dick Kleeman writes: Re. “Climate committee is better without the Coalition” (yesterday, item 1). Recent articles by Bernard Keane and others on climate change are totally dishonest in that they have no firsthand knowledge of the weather themselves and put forth ideas and points of view that are wrong. The earth is not warming due to anything to do with man, it is certainly being polluted, deforested and over populated, but weather and temperature are controlled by forces far greater than man.

My experience with weather is first hand and has been gained over a 45 year flying career including with the airlines. There is no such thing as average weather or temperature, as every day it changes and to get an average temperature you would have to record the temperature every five minutes over every square kilometre of the earth’s surface and that is not done nor would it prove anything.

The proof that we are not in some sort of rapid unsustainable temperature increase is in the weather patterns themselves. We have had the most benign summer and winter weather on the east coast of Australia over the past dozen years and the lack of severe thunderstorm activity and cyclones is proof of this. In the 1960’s and 1970’s it was quite common in summer to get thunderstorms with tops to 65,000 and 70,000 from the New England area through to Brisbane, I know, I had to avoid them and get into aerodromes in the area. Apart from isolated severe storms you never see that degree of activity these days because the vertical development is not there because the heat is not there.

In airline operations, I have seen lines of thunderstorms of an evening all the way from Brisbane to Cairns, something not seen these days. Likewise, the number of cyclones in recent years is very small because the sea water temperatures are not high enough to generate them — nor have they been in the Gulf of Mexico since 2008. Having actually flown through the eye of a large tropical cyclone in a jet airliner in 1976 on an early morning out of Gove, I think I have a bit more credibility to comment on weather than armchair experts who have never worked in the weather every day from sea level to 40,000.

To say you can forecast temperature to two degrees Celsius fifty years ahead is nonsense — I have seen the weather forecasts so bad that they cannot tell you the weather in real time and we have arrived at an airport forecast to be fine fifteen minutes earlier, only to have it close shortly after with severe thunderstorms.

Tamas Calderwood writes: Bernard Keane equates “people who believe in man-made climate change and support a carbon price” with being “rational and economically-literate”, implying sceptics are irrational and economic dunces.

Well, thanks Bernard. In any case, applying my irrational and economically-illiterate super-powers to the problem, I started with the IPCC’s worst-case AR4-A1F1 warming scenario of 4C by 2100 (anyone seen any sign of that lately, by the way?… but I digress). I also assumed Australia to be a world leader in reducing emissions from 1.5% of humanity’s share of CO2 to 1% over that time and that this would have a linear impact on temperatures (even though CO2 has a logarithmic decay in energy absorption).

Let’s say this planet-saving tax works its magic by raising only ten billion dollars a year and assume zero inflation.  So for just 900 billion bucks Australian taxpayers will reduce global temperatures in 2100 by — wait for it — 0.02C.

Put another way, that’s just $45 trillion per degree Celsius of cooling.  What a bargain.

Public transport:

Leo Foley writes: Re. “Should public transport users pay their way?” (yesterday, item 12). Fares are not the only way of funding public transport.  Good public transport systems enhance the localities that they serve. That increases land values, without the landowner contributing anything at all.  If we were to capture just some of that land value increase, then public transport could be paid for.

Fares would be minimal, encouraging greater use. Instead of thinking “user-pays”, think about “beneficiary-pays”. Commuters are not the only beneficiaries, and in dollar terms, they are a fair way down the scale below landowners.

A flat-rate land tax will provide the sort of public transport services that we need, as well as other community facilities.

Irfan Yusuf:

Bob Smith writes: Re. “The real Delhi: not as dirty, scary and chaotic as the media thinks” (yesterday, item 13). Nice piece by Irfan Yusuf on Delhi and the things that really bother Indians. More from people who actually know India and South Asia please.


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