The controversy over the outing of the blogger Grog’s Gamut as public servant Greg Jericho has now passed out of the hands of newspapers and the blogosphere and on to the desk of senior public servants, who have some interesting questions to wrestle with.
To be specific, are public servants, on their own time, allowed to engage in what might be described as acts of journalism?
People could be forgiven for thinking that too much has been said about Grog’s Gamut already. But I think this controversy is more than a morality play about mean journos and brave bloggers. It is an opportunity to reflect, not only on journalistic ethics and norms and the extent to which they remain relevant, but also on what the differences are between journalists and citizen journalists.
More than this, it gives us a chance to think about information and citizenship. To be specific, in the Web 2.0 world, when so much information is available so freely, what are the roles for the brokers who have traditionally stood between information and citizens? Such information brokers have included librarians, journalists, and — yes — public servants.
So to take the question a step further, what are the differences between public servants attempting to inform public debates, and journalists trying to do the same thing? Perhaps it sounds grandiose, but I think the Grog’s Gamut controversy offers us a chance to think through the relationship, not only between journalists and citizens, but between government and the governed.
We are all waiting to see whether or not Grog re-emerges on Twitter and the blogosphere. If he does, then it means he has been given the green light. If he re-emerges only to announce his departure, then we will know that blogging as an identified public servant was a step too far.
Yesterday, the media spokesman for the Public Service Commission told me that, while he was aware of the controversy, the matter had not yet made it to that body. It is being dealt with by the office of the arts in the department of premier and cabinet, which is where Jericho works.
There will people on both sides of what is usually described as the blogger-journalist divide who will object to my characterisation of what Jericho was doing as journalism.
Some social media evangelists will protest that to characterise it in this way is to try and shoe-horn a new and healthy form of public engagement into tired and corrupt mainstream media norms.
On the other side, there will be journalists who want to stomp around talking about professionalism and codes of ethics blah-blah, and will object to the idea that people who don’t much like journalists might nevertheless do journalism — and do it well.
My own view is that one of the trends of the present and future is that journalism will increasingly be regarded as more of a practice than a profession. Lots of people who do not see themselves as journalists will nevertheless do things that are journalistic practise, including reporting, describing and questioning public events and public figures.
And when they engage in journalism, as academic Jason Wilson has put it in the past, it will behove them to adopt some of the better practices of journalists — including fact checking and using the telephone. Of course, too few journalists do these things with skill and integrity and consistency. But they should.
I would add to this list of journalistic virtues the preparedness to be named. As I have argued elsewhere, I can’t see that someone participating in public debate has any automatic right to expect anonymity, although they might seek it.
Wilson has been thinking along these lines too. He has a post up on Restless Capital in which he gives a string of examples of journalists — including journalists on The Australian — using pseudonyms, including when they were engaged in trying to bring down a government. Wilson begins his post:
“The arrogance journalists have lately displayed about the culture of online political discussion may be forgivable; their ignorance about their own profession and the history of publishing isn’t.”
And he concludes:
“Anonymity and pseudonymity are not a right, but nor is writing under your own name an obligation. If you are writing pseudonymously or anonymously, you’re part of a history that started long before the current model of bylined journalism did, and certainly before the current occupants of the Canberra Press Gallery got Twitter accounts. What you are doing is not wrong. Any suggestion that it is should be understood for what it is — an attempt to restrict public speech. In the long view, the capacity to write anonymously or pseudonymously has been a net bonus for our culture, and our democracy. If you don’t think so, it’s probably because you have hurt feelings.”
As can be seen, Wilson and I differ, at least in emphasis. I would argue that it ill behoves journalists — who are information brokers and should be seen to be honest in their trade — to seek anonymity. The Code of Ethics is resonant with this, when it requires journalists to identify themselves before seeking interviews or information.
But none of this will be worrying Greg Jericho’s bosses. They have to consider whether or not it is OK for identified public servants to blog their personal opinions on politics.