Something to hide?

My name is Paul Anderson – it really is impossible to hide that fact. The domain for this site is my name, my pictures are dotted around this site, I link to my Facebook profile. I am not an anonymous blogger. I don’t want to be an anonymous blogger. The reason for that is simple. I want to be a writer. I want a career where people will know me, at the very least, by name.

Others do not have that luxury. Some people have a story to tell – perhaps a story that needs to be told, but are in a position where disclosing their details may result in the loss of their job, ostracision, or just plain embarrassment.

Journalists rely on anonymous sources and whistleblowers in order to reveal the truth. But now they are turning on their own protections of anonymity by pursuing a policy of outing prominent anonymous bloggers.

The Orwell Prize winning blogger known as “NightJack” was a serving police officer who detailed real life on the job – a genuine insight into what it really meant to be on the modern police force, warts and all. Clearly, he would be unable to maintain this blog if his true identity was revealed. And so The Times newspaper duly sought to do that. NightJack sought an injunction to prevent the publication of the story, and lost. Mr Justice Eady (of whom I shall have more to say another day) decided that the public interest in disclosing his identity outweighed any public interest there might be in allowing his quasi-whistleblowing to continue, and we now know that NightJack is Detective Constable Richard Horton. Inevitably, DC Horton could not continue with the blog. It has been deleted (which is why I do not include a link to it) and he has been disciplined by his police force. Whatever value his blog may have served is now lost to us, his career is in jeopardy, and The Times carries much of the responsibility.

I am unsure of what my opinion of this case is. I never read NightJack, and now have no opportunity to do so. If the justifications of Times journalist Patrick Foster are to be believed, then NightJack potentially placed prosecutions and convictions at risk by revealing details that could be traced back to specific cases (although some commenters have countered that these details are only identifiable because of Mr Foster’s actions). This would be dangerous to the public interest. However, reading the article one thing DC Horton appears to be most criticised for is advising the public of their rights when investigated by the police, specifically if you are innocent. Heaven forefend that a serving police officer should actually be concerned about the legal rights of a suspect!

Justice Eady, in deciding the issue of the injunction, had the discretion to allow publication of this blogger’s name for the limited facts and circumstances of this one case. But Eady did not exercise this discretion, and instead has placed the very concept of anonymity on the internet in peril, and The Times has colluded in this, to the point now that it is reacting petulantly to any criticism directed at it.

Anna Mikhailova, who made her name by outing Girl With a One Track Mind blogger Zoe Margolis, has written a rather sniffy article about her experiences of taking on the blogosphere.

Ms Mikhailova saw nothing wrong with “outing” Ms Margolis, as her anonymity was merely “a marketing gimmick”. Perhaps the publishers of the book of her blog exploited her anonymous status for the purposes of marketing, but for Ms Margolis her anonymity was not a gimmick. It was the essential shield that allowed her to keep her job, and to protect herself and her family from some of the disgusting abuse directed at them in the wake of her outing. Having seen the emails Ms Mikhailova sent to Ms Margolis in the run up to the story breaking, which Ms Margolis has reproduced here, they are quite plainly bullying and manipulation couched in the language of a friendly overture. I am particularly struck by this paragraph in an email dated August 5th 2006 from Ms Mikhailova’s News Editor:

We have obtained your birth certificate, and details about where you went to school and college … We propose to publish the fact that you are 33 and live in [my address] -London, and that your mother, [her name], is a [her address] -based [her profession].

Of what possible, conceivable, rational public interest could there possibly be in Ms Margolis’ address, or details about her mother, such as address and profession? This isn’t journalism. This is mud-raking. In yesterday’s Times article Ms Mikhailova has the gall to complain about the behaviour directed at her, including having her photo and details of where she worked and studied published – exactly what she had done to Ms Margolis!

The ultimate justification Ms Mikhailova has settled on is that print journalists have legal teams that check articles before publication to prevent libel, and bloggers don’t. Therefore, the occassional outing of anonymous bloggers is a necessary check on their actions.

Let’s ignore the obvious flaw for a second – that neither Ms Margolis nor DC Horton had committed libel when they were outed. The necessary check on the actions of a blogger would be to hold them legally responsible for what they have done, not remove their anonymity “just in case”. Had DC Horton committed libel, then revealing his identity as a necessary part of libel proceedings would be acceptable. Indeed, anonymity does not preserve you from the actions of the law, it merely gives you a measure of privacy.

And the cadre of lawyers at the disposal of newspapers does not prevent them from being sued for libel. As recently as January of this year Roman Abramovich decided to sue The Times over one of the articles that Ms Mikhailova claims are checked and cleared by the lawyers. In the past few weeks The Scotland on Sunday was forced to pay damages to Gordon Brown’s brother over allegations that had doubtless been cleared by the lawyers. I can think of no bloggers who have been sued for libel. Who is it that should be a tiny bit more careful Ms Mikhailova? The bloggers who are anonymous for reasons of privacy, or the journalists who muck-rake and get sued for libel despite their legal teams?

For a more rational take on this story, including the potential problems it may introduce for anonymous sources in the future, read Emily Bell’s column in today’s Guardian.

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