3 September 2009

Notes on the Nightjack Ruling


“Justice Eady ruled that bloggers have no right to privacy in what is essentially the public act of publishing. Eady overturned an injunction that had prevented the Times from revealing the identity of Richard Norton – the detective behind the blog, following neatly in the paper’s tradition of outing anonymous bloggers. ” in Guardian

“But those of us who have chosen to be anonymous online, have done so with good reason; so after losing my own anonymity, and experiencing first hand the ruthless behaviour of some elements of the press, I will continue to fight for the right of other bloggers to keep their identity hidden.” - Zoe Margolis, outed by the Times.

Courtesy of The Times and Justice Eady

Random Acts of Reality is a blog by an EMT working for the London Ambulance Service who goes by the name “Reynolds.” He’s dashed out a great rant on the Nightjack ruling, which revealed the identity of Detective constable Richard Norton as the author of the blog NightJack. Sadly, the only thing left of Nightjack is the wordpress.com default page that appears when someone closes a blog down: “The authors have deleted this blog. The content is no longer available.” An all too common epitaph.

by Reynolds

Notes on the Nightjack verdict, written in haste, in anger, and unedited (because I'm knackered and I have no time to do it justice. My apologies - I think I made more sense when speaking to a Guardian journalist about it)

When I started writing this blog I made some effort at remaining anonymous, it wasn't a big effort mind you, but it involved writing under a pseudonym and not shouting about it in the messroom. When my real name was found out I discovered that I was very lucky, that the communications department of the LAS didn't want to come gunning for my job.

There are laws that protect you should you wish to 'whistleblow', if someone is doing something illegal or immoral then you can be protected if you bring it to someone else's attention. Of course, in the real world, that 'protection' is only as good as the lawyers you can hire to fight for those protections.

A lot of what bloggers bring to light is the chronic state of the their day to day life - a classic example would be police bloggers letting us know about how much administration that they must fill in whenever they make an arrest. Part of what I write about is to highlight the flaws in the governmental running of the NHS. Other bloggers do this more than me.

What bloggers do is humanise and explain their section of the world - public sector bodies do well to have bloggers writing within them, after all these are the people who care about what they do, about what improvements should be made and about where the faults come from. They highlight these things in the hopes that, in bringing this information into the public consciousness, they can effect a change that they would otherwise be powerless to bring about.

Anonymity provides a protection against vindictiveness from management who would rather do nothing than repeat the party-line, or lie, that everything is perfect, there is no cause for concern. Having seen management do, essentially illegal things, in order to persecute and victimise staff - anonymity is a way of protecting your mortgage payments.

It is not just for bloggers this protection of anonymity - consider a support forum for people with mental health problems, anonymity allows these user to perhaps be more open, more honest and more themselves then they would do were they forced to reveal their own identities. It is the nature of the internet that our identities are fluid.

Perhaps that can be the Times next 'scoop', tracking down the people behind anonymous forums in the cause of 'public interest'.

Journalists work to protect their sources, some ending up in prison over their refusal to breach the privacy of their sources. This is right and proper.

So - when Judge Eady told the Times that they could breach the privacy of the police blogger Nightjack, it has lead to a very real fear of what this means for the rest of us.

The thought that Nightjack breached laws on writing about criminal cases (when the details are all in the public domain post-trial) seems petty, and if he did indeed compromise trials then why is his force only giving him a written warning rather than prosecuting him?

I won't dwell on the 'public interest' of unveiling bloggers, they have done it before in utterly despicable ways and for some reason it seems to be their 'cause' - were I vindictive I'd be looking into their expense accounts right now for some justified retribution. Or googlebombing them as a bunch of tossers.

Instead I'm mindful that a lot of exceptionally interesting, thought-provoking blogs might now come to an end. What is to stop companies and public bodies from hunting down people who may have been negative about them. What blogger, with bills to pay and mouths to feed, is now going to take the chance of lifting the lid on mismanagement, badly though policies or idiotic governmental decrees when there is the very real chance that their identities can be revealed for nothing more than a lurid headline on someone's chip wrapper.

Why should bloggers put their careers at risk, over subjects that they are evangelical about, when the simpler, safer option is to fall back into the horde of people who grumble under their breath yet risk nothing to change things for the better. The world can then continue with less public scrutiny because people are scared to speak out.

If it is so important to know a bloggers name so as to better judge them as a source, then I think that it is time to do away with the journalistic practice of protecting sources. After all, without producing the source, the journalist could be (gasp) making up lies. I think we should also know, for definite, what enticements a journalist has had to write a piece for a paper - that 'holiday in France' piece, was it 'bought' by the holiday company that receives the good review?

(The answer is that this does go on - I've seen it with my own eyes)

I wonder if Judge Eady reads blogs, or even has any idea what a blog is. I wonder if he has any idea of what a door he has opened for witch hunts and the reduction of our knowledge of public services to bite-sized PR fluff. I wonder if he realises that anonymity is one of the strengths of the internet, not a weakness.

And as for the Times - I wouldn't wipe my arse on it.

in Random Acts of Reality


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