The controversy over the outing of the blogger Grogs 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 Grogs 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 Grogs 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 bla-bla, 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 practice, 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.

Jason 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 okay for  identified public servants to blog their personal opinions on politics.

I asked Nicholas Gruen what he thought. Gruen is not only himself a well known blogger, but last year led the Government 2.0 taskforce, which included in its report a recommendation that public servants should be encouraged to engage online.

The argument is worth reading in full. It unfolds on page 20 and again on page 50 of the report,  here.

To quote some snippets:

“The ethic of voluntarism coupled with the openness of online collaboration has typically led to a culture in which status and recognition are a function of the quality of contribution as judged by those who share an interest in the common ambitions of the community or network itself. There are various ways in which the value that this brings can make a contribution to government. Firstly, governments can tap more confidently into online collaboration. Some of those who self-organise around an issue of shared interest are likely to have particular expertise and aptitude which can complement government resources.”

But, as the report goes on to say, the openness of Web 2.0 conflicts with a public service mentality.

“In many ways, these concerns reflect an underlying tension between a social networking culture that is essentially open, collaborative and can turn up the unexpected innovation and a public service that, sometimes for good reasons, continues to be a culture of control, hierarchy and predictability.”

So the Grogs Gamut controversy, as well as affording an opportunity to reflect on journalists ethics, also opens up the possibility of thinking through public service roles and practices.

We should not overstate the import of the Grogs Gamut example. What Jericho did bore no relationship to his professional life. That was part of the point of the pseudonym – to keep the two separate. He never blogged on things related to his work.

The media manager for the Public Service Commission referred me to the policy on such things, which makes it clear that public servants are as entitled to take part in politics and public debate as any other citizen, providing they maintain a separation between their professional conduct and  their private opinions.

Gruen said to me yesterday that so far as he was concerned, Jericho’s blogging, while partisan, was conducted entirely in his own time, and should ideally be in no way the business of his employer. But Gruen agreed that whether or not Grog was behaving as a journalist, and whether or not this made a difference, was “an interesting question for you to ask, but it doesn’t change my view about anything”.

What excites Gruen is not public servants blogging privately, as any other citizen might do, but the possibility of public servants being encouraged to blog professionally. In other words, he favours recognition that public servants are often those best placed to inform a debate. And, if they are taking place in the conversations on social media, they are also well placed to be informed.

As Gruen puts it, once you are a presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter, people take the time to let you know about things that will interest you. Government might harness the power of the well informed amateurs who gather around policy areas. Government can be brought closer to the people who are on the end of its programs and policies.

The potential pitfalls are obvious – public servants being perceived as partisan, or allowing themselves to be used as a form of government advertising (to which one could say that at least it would be cheaper than the political advertising taxpayers are already forced to pay for).

But Gruen believes, and his report advocates, that the public service should explore the terrain, staying initially well clear of the blurry boundary lines and the problem areas.

The Government 2.0 taskforce report anticipated that this kind of activity might become a new kind of public service career path. In which case someone with the skills of Jericho might be – should be – in high demand.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey