Goodnight, Jack: On ‘outing’ bloggers

June 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 3 Comments

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I first became aware of “NightJack” around four months ago. I’d taken the unusually bold step of putting myself forward for the Orwell Prize and somehow found myself nestled alongside him and 10 other fine writers on the longlist. We had a few online interactions since and he always struck me as forthright, gracious & fair. When he was awarded the prize for best blog, it was telling that people who’ll otherwise agree on very little could still nod in affirmation that he was a worthy winner.

But what should have been a crowning moment in his amateur writing career has swiftly turned sour. For reasons never articulated beyond a weak cry of ‘public interest!’, The Times has sought to reveal the true identity of the pseudonymous police officer, resulting in a reprimand from his superiors and – most disappointly – the deletion of all those brilliant words. The outcry over his outing has been as widespread as the accolades he received in victory.

As I’m not a lawyer, I really can’t comment on the rights & wrongs of the decision to allow the publication of his name: it might have been a fair decision to reach, it might have been the only possible decision to reach. Instead, I just want to offer a few words about what this decision puts at risk.

Everyone who visited NightJack regularly could’ve gained valuable insight from it. You could’ve read about police officers’ attitudes towards their political paymasters, the process of investigating crime, thoughts on the criminal mind, the criminal justice system, or just general observations about human behaviour. Even if you rarely agreed with his conclusions, there was always something which made you challenge your own perceptions. Crucially, this was the kind of writing which could never have been hosted by the mainstream media, and could never have been produced without his pseudonymity.

Now there will be no more of that, and by splaying his name and his face across the mainstream press, it sends an ominous message to anyone else who wants to share stories, whistleblow or offer thoughts on their profession: don’t get too good, don’t become too popular, because your life as you knew it could change completely. All of this makes Frances Gibb’s self-congratulatory defence that the ruling “struck a blow in favour of openness” seem rather shallow. Sure, if your main concern is regulating what bloggers call themselves, then I suppose this is a victory for openness. If, on the other hand, you’re more interested by what that blogger has to say, then you can’t help but feel cheated.

On top of that, far from producing a ‘cloak of anonymity’ which protects only the sneaky, irresponsible & unaccountable elements of the blogosphere, pseudonymity can also protect some of its best voices. As Jonathan Adler wrote in relation to an ‘outing’ controversy in the U.S.:

While it enables some to hurl reckless charges and gross epithets, it also facilitates the engagement of more individuals in on-line discussion and debate. There are many understandable reasons why intelligent and knowledgeable people in various fields are reluctant to blog under their own name. Adopting a pseudonym is not necessarily a cowardly or sinister act.

In this country, the pool of blogging talent is far smaller than somewhere like the United States, and for that reason we need all the smart, perceptive & critical voices we can muster. There are never too many words, never too many pairs of eyes, and never too many fair & insightful writers contributing to democratic debate. Because the protection offered by pseudonymity can encourage more of those voices to come out & blog, it’s actually incredibly beneficial to our politics.

I suspect that people who value what blogging – whether pseudonymous or not – can contribute to the public sphere will feel aggrieved by The Times’ decision and its countless unknown consequences. Today, we’ve just lost one great blog, but we’ll never know how many people will now be discouraged from committing their thoughts to cyberspace.

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3 Comments »

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  1. How can I put myself forward for next year’s Orwell Prize?

  2. Hi,

    Assuming they still have a prize for blogs next year, I think they’ll start advertising around late November/December time for submissions. It was quite well publicised, so I don’t think you’ll miss it.

  3. Sounds good. Thanks for that.


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