Suppose a serving police officer wrote an anonymous blog which gave his views of the job from his perspective as a member of the British National Party. And suppose an enterprising journalist examined the details in that blog and managed to unmask the identity of the officer concerned. Suppose a little further that the officer tried to prevent publication of his name, but that the court ruled his blog did not give him an automatic right to privacy. What would the shape of the ensuing debate be?
I ask these questions in the wake of the fallout from the NightJack case last week, something which I commented briefly upon on this blog. My observation was included in Judith Townend’s admirably thorough round-up of the affair on Global Voices, and that has prompted me to do what I’d been planning since that original brief post, which is to go into a little more depth.
Just for context, the UK’s Times newspaper went to court to secure the right to name the person behind the anonymous blog NightJack, which detailed the life and opinions of a serving police officer. Times reporter Patrick Foster uncovered the author’s identity, and the paper went to court when the blog’s author tried to prevent the paper unmasking him. The paper’s argument was that “‘he was also using the blog to disclose detailed information about cases he had investigated, which could be traced back to real-life prosecutions.”
Mr Justic Eady ruled for the paper, saying that blogging was “essentially a public rather than a private activity”. This ruling has sparked the current debate, and foremost among the criticisms are that the ruling is a threat to privacy, an attack on blogging, a disincentive to whistleblowing and a demonstration of how so-called ‘old’ media doesn’t understand ‘new’.
In my previous post, I said I broadly agreed with the comment on FleetStreetBlues which said “There is no automatic right of privacy in the street – and neither should there be on the information superhighway.” That doesn’t mean I’m not uncomfortable with some aspects of the case. The Times’s main justification, that the contract-breaking activities of a serving police officer COULD undermine real-life prosecutions is a perfectly logical one. But this explanation doesn’t make it clear to me exactly why The Times pursued this case with such vigour. Did, or does, the paper have information which shows that details revealed on the blog WOULD have undermined real-life cases? If it does, then I’d like to see the story. But if there is no story, because no cases are undermined, then The Times went to court solely on the issue of principle – that bloggers have no automatic right to privacy. And it’s harder to see why the paper put so much effort into establishing this principle – what does the paper have to gain?
Some may see this as evidence of the vendetta against ‘new’ media being waged by the ‘old order’. I’m afraid I see no evidence of any such vendetta or conspiracy, and I think it’s a fairly childish accusation to make. There are various views and various degrees of understanding about various forms of communication, but no one serious is out to ‘get’ any one of them.
But I’m still troubled by what The Times thought it would gain – just as I’m troubled by the vitriol that’s being directed at Foster, a journalist who was doing his job properly. What I think is particularly interesting about this case is that many people seem to be taking positions on the basis of their opinion of the NightJack blog, The Times, or the police. Which is why I posed the questions I did at the beginning of this piece.
For the record, the limited extracts I saw of the NightJack blog made stimulating, engaging and occasionally troubling reading. But you can’t base a principle on whether or not you agree with something – a principle has to apply across the board. You can’t agree with one person’s ‘right’ to run an anonymous blog criticising something you are critical of while simultaneously disagreeing with another person’s ‘right’ to hide behind anonymity in order to push views you don’t agree with. It’s possible to be troubled by what the implications of the opposite ruling by Mr Justice Eady would have been, too.
By the way, I don’t actually think the ruling will deter all future whistleblowers, any more than the imprisonment of Sarah Tisdall in 1983 after The Guardian revealed her as the source of a story did. By its very nature, whistleblowing is a desperate act which is carried out by people who believe the issue to which they are drawing attention is more important than their own safety or prospects. That doesn’t mean we should play fast and loose with the identity of whistleblowers, just that we need to examine the issue with a little perspective. That would also require a recognition that most whistleblowers wouldn’t chose the medium of a blog to make their disclosures, and certainly not one to which they would draw attention by entering it for a prize. Nor would they make the mistake of publishing details from which they could easily be identified.
I also mentioned something a number of people have picked up on, that there could be seen to be a clash between the journalist’s right not to reveal a source and the blogger’s right to anonymity. If you give this particular issue some thought, it’s fairly easy to conclude that the two cannot be compared. There is a difference between the supply of information and the publishing of that information. And that is why journalists have fought so hard to preserve the right to protect sources.
Ever since the mass adoption of email, there has been a blurring of the edges between private and public communication. Because sending an email involved one individual sending to another, there was an assumption that the content of the mail was private, like a letter. But it wasn’t, and there are a thousand stories of employees running into trouble because their ‘private’ correspondence turned out to be public. As blogging has become a mass activity, things have become more complicated. The act of creating a blog is carried out alone in front of a computer screen, but the intention is to make those thoughts, constructed in private, public. So sometimes people conduct public conversations from their private vantage point in a way they would never dream of doing if they were in public.
Anyone who works with media needs to think hard about how the division between public and private has changed in our connected, wired world. It seems sometimes that people want the ‘rights’ of privacy without the responsibility; the ‘right’ to go public without the responsibility to be transparent. We need further thought and debate about how we balance these rights and responsibilites.
I’d add one last point, at the risk of re-introducing my soapbox speech, and that is that the key to much of this is the recognition that we control technology. So many people seem to think that because they have the ability to communicate the minutest details of their lives to a global audience, then that’s what they must do. It’s not the case. We need to think more carefully about how we use our ability to communicate. Asking a single ‘why’ at the beginning of a process may prevent the proliferation of ‘whys’ at a later stage – and that NightJack case does leave a lot of ‘whys’ hanging.