A large part of the Blogosphere and Twitter have been consumed this week by the Australian newspaper’s action in “outing” the astute but anonymous blogger Grog’s Gamut as Canberra public servant Greg Jericho. The Australian’s Media section will tomorrow carry even more material on the issue. I have been approached for comment by them, as have a number of others. Journalist Sally Jackson, always a straight shooter in my experience, has written a piece. Others are involved as well.
Meanwhile, I gave my own view, which was that outing a blogger is not unethical, but certainly mean, in this Crikey story earlier in the week.
One very penetrating comment, though, has not made the cut in The Australian. It comes from my friend and colleague Dr Denis Muller, who unlike me is a specialist in media ethics, and convenes the ethics component of the journalism degree at Swinburne University of Technology.
He wrote the following email to Sally Jackson. I gather it arrived too late to be included in the paper’s coverage, which is a shame. Muller and I would vary on some issues of emphasis, but I think he nicely skewers the broader ethics of the issue.
I am sorry not to have been available when you rang yesterday, and by the time I got your message it was too late to be of any use to you. I do not know whether my views on this are still relevant to you, but in case they are, I am setting them out here.
I agree with Margaret Simons that the act of outing Mr Jericho is not in itself unethical, but I believe that the article is unethical in other ways. In my opinion, the main ethical problems are these:
- Dishonesty in rationale. The intro contains a gross exaggeration which is then used to provide a public-interest justification for the outing. The gross exaggeration is that the blogger had “prompted Mark Scott to redirect the ABC’s federal election coverage”. “Redirect” suggests that it caused Scott to alter the direction of the coverage. To use a word popular in this debate, that is just bollocks. As the article itself shows, Scott’s reference in his keynote speech at the New News conference was no more than illustrative of the way in which the ABC responded to audience criticism and feedback generally during the election campaign. He ascribed no special influence to Grog’s Gamut. In my view, the public-interest justification does not exist. That makes the outing harder to defend, if a defence is needed. It would have been more honest just to out the man and be done with it.
- Dishonesty in argument. The seventh par states that the blogger shows a strong preference for the ALP, “despite” the Public Service code of conduct requiring the APS to be apolitical. The use of the word “despite” sets up the false proposition that what the blogger was doing in his private capacity was somehow a breach of his obligations in his professional capacity. This is mendacious and indefensible. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would debar public servants from participating as individuals in the political life of the nation, a situation that has never existed in Australia, or any other Western democracy for that matter.
- False comparison. Comparing the outing of Grog’s Gamut – who had merely wished anonymity – with the outing of Helen Demidenko – who had publicly lied about her identity — is utterly without moral or logical foundation.
Finally, let us assume for a moment that I am wrong in my first point, and that there was a genuine public-interest justification for the outing: there is another public-interest consideration to be taken into account here, and that is the public interest in having a plurality of voices in the public space or, as John Milton called it, the marketplace of ideas. If, as a result of the outing, Mr Jericho withdraws from the public space, the Australian polity will be the poorer; it will have been harmed. The harm would be negligible, certainly, but the principle is not negligible. Ethical reporting requires that such possible consequences be identified and an honest rationale be developed to justify causing them.