Bloggers and anonymity

BY hoot| IN Media Practice | 24/06/2009
Should anonymity be an entitlement for all bloggers? And if not, for which kinds?
A HOOT editorial.

As media forms evolve so do the boundaries within which they function, and the legal precedents concerning them. Blogging has been the most vibrant and audacious medium to emerge since the advent of the Internet, but is  now increasingly running into challenges to its free flow. In India there was blogger Chyetanya Kunte, who backed down after NDTV sent him a legal notice for suggesting that Barkha Dutt¿s reporting of the Mumbai seige might have endangered lives. That led to howls of protest about NDTV¿s bullying tactics, and defences of a blogger¿s right to free speech. And from UK this month  comes a significant and controversial High Court ruling which says that bloggers cannot be granted an order protecting their anonymity simply because they fear disciplinary action if outed.


That again has led to a huge storm of protest and raised several different issues.


Do public servants blogging about the realities of  government service need the protection of anonymity? Do whistleblowers need it? Do all blogs need to be anonymous even when they simply allows the author to be frank to the point of being  intemperate and abusive?  And then given that the police blogger in the UK case was sought to be outed by the Times, London, should a newspaper play a role in blowing the cover of  a blogger whose posts have a public service dimension?


Richard Horton, a detective constable with Lancashire Constabulary, wrote a popular  blog called Night Jack in which he posted observations and experiences arising from his daily work. When a Times journalist Patrick Foster deduced his identity Horton sought a legal injunction to stop the Times from revealing his name. In refusing to grant it, the judge  Justice Eady said, : "Those who wish to hold forth to the public by this means often take steps to disguise their authorship, but it is in my judgment a significantly further step to argue, if others are able to deduce their identity, that they should be restrained by law from revealing it." Further, in what is supposed to be the first case dealing with the privacy of internet bloggers, the judge ruled that Mr Horton had no "reasonable expectation" of  anonymity because "blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity".


While the police officer had argued that he should not be exposed because it could put him at risk of disciplinary action for breaching regulations, the judge did not buy this argument. His ruling said, "I do not accept that it is part of the court¿s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors." Further,  "It would seem to be quite legitimate for the public to be told who it was who was choosing to make, in some instances quite serious criticisms of police activities and, if it be the case, that frequent infringements of police discipline regulations were taking place."


At the time that his identity was outed, Horton had already stopped writing the blog, and moved out to writing a book. He began the blog in February 2008 and drew some 500,000 readers a week when it was at the peak of its popularity. It gave brutally frank insights into policing in Britain. One for instance told readers what not to do when picked up by the police. "If the Police arrive to lock you up, say nothing. You are a decent person and you may think that reasoning with the Police will help. Wrong."


 He wrote engaging pieces on police gear, macho police behaviour, and who was sleeping with whom in the unit where he worked.  He drew on cases of sex offences that he dealt with in his work, describing them, and one argument of his counsel was that if his identity was known, it would not take long to track down which real life cases he was talking about.


Why did a Times journalist decide to out him? Is it legitimate for a reporter to pursue the real identiy of someone whose blog is making news, and has won a prize, the Orwell Prize? Writing in his column Comment Central on Times Online Daniel Finkelstein observed, "When a public servant decides to reveal the confidences of their colleagues and details of their work, especially on police cases, then their identity becomes a legitimate matter of interest. And other journalists might reasonably investigate the matter."


Not surprisingly the many who have posted their opinions on the issue on the Times Online website do not think so. They thought it was despicable of a news organisation which would want its own reporters¿ sources protected to unmask some one who was also covering a sensitive  beat, albeit as a blogger not as a journalist.


 Some issues of relevance to media people  everywhere arise from this. Should anonymity be an entitlement for all bloggers?  And if not, for which kinds? Should a public servant who blogs, and publishes a fair amount of personal stuff about his colleagues as well, be entitled to legal protection from having his identity outed?


At the same time, can legitimate whistleblowing take place without the cover of anonymity? 


Bloggers are nothing if not vociferous about their rights and freedoms. In deciding whether anonymity should be an entitlement for all bloggers the Hoot¿s view is that the relevant question to ask is, are all blogs in the public interest? Perhaps there should be different rules for  those that are and those that are simply platforms for opinions and views, often sweeping and abusive ones.


Britain has a variety of blogs by those in public service. They are recognized as political blogs, making constant statements about the quality of government and political performance. Night Jack himself recommended some on his blog, including one by a social worker, another by a Labour Party worker, a couple of others by police officers, and one by a police dog handler. There are also blogs written by sex workers.


How many Indian blogs are there by civil servants, policemen, political party workers, or even those working in hospitals and jails? Who would deny that these, if they existed and were truthful, would be doing yeoman service, and would deserve the protect of anonymity? We need more light to be shed on the way our institutions function.


But the other argument is that bloggers  and those posting comments on websites  must clean up their act if they want the protection of anonymity. Why does abuse come so naturally to the anonymous online populace? Jim Grozier argues on Times Online that anonymity brings out the worst in people. At the Hoot, we would agree but say, some people. And it is baffling why those who simply have views to express cannot put their names to them, or do so in printable language. There is a whole culture of casual abuse that the universe of blogging and comments has nurtured.


As for journalism vs. blogging, some contradictions in the stand of the Times in this case have been pointed out by those leaving comments. One, that the Times while hounding Richard Horton has linked to other anonymous police blogs.  And two, that it has editorially argued for  less exposure in some cases. One comment quoted these two instances:


Just last week, a leader in the same newspaper endorsed Gordon Brown¿s opinion that private hearings would make for a more informative Iraq inquiry. "It may," the paper agreed, "encourage greater candour by witnesses." In Iran, it reported, the great boon of tweeting is that "people can stay anonymous if they want to".


Should journalists out bloggers whose posts serve a public purpose, just for the sake of a scoop?  No, and if  you do so, you should not expect protection from having to reveal your sources when you pursue an investigation. But here is the rub: since  blogging sets its own rules a blog like Night Jack¿s was also revelatory about things that had no public purpose. What then should  be the identity disclosure norm for freewheeling beans spillers?




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