f you only learn one useful thing from this article – which would be well above average for my posts – then learn this: there is no such thing as a high-profile, anonymous blogger. That’s the lesson that @GrogsGamut, the blogger, tweeter and sometime Drum contributor has learned after the Australian‘s James Massola outed him late last night as arts bureaucrat Greg Jericho. Which is a name so secret-agent cool that I might well use it as my own pseudonym someday.
For those who haven’t visited the pit of seething fury that the web’s premier microblogging service has become today, let’s just say that the Twittersphere isn’t happy. Massola has received a deluge of abuse, and his detractors have replaced their own pictures with Grog’s avatar – which might explain why many people in your feed have confusingly transformed into Ralph Fiennes.
The question of whether bloggers and tweeters should be able to remain anonymous is somewhat moot in the internet age, when it takes five seconds to sign up. But maintaining anonymity when your work becomes popular can be far more difficult – just ask another Drum writer, Marieke Hardy, who had the extraordinary honour of being outed by Andrew Bolt. Anonymity invites a guessing game, and there are always clues because a blog with no personal details will generally be very dull.
And so they get caught out, nearly every time. This won’t be the greatest day of Greg Jericho’s life. He’ll no doubt be hauled into an awkward meeting with his bosses, and have to make some hard decisions on whether to continue his online activities – if he’s even allowed to. (I’ll leave the precise interpretation of the Public Service rules to other, more thorough bloggers, like Jericho himself.) It won’t even comfort him to think that he’s in a dual-identity dilemma routinely faced by Superman.
His exposure is only newsworthy – to the limited extent that it is – because of a post he wrote criticising the travelling press pack during the recent campaign. His accusion that they were focussing on trivialities to the exclusion of policy was picked up on by Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the ABC, and passed through to the national broadcaster’s news team. As far as anonymous bloggers go, that made him pretty darn influential – I’d be astonished if the boss had ever bothered to read my internet drivel, for instance.
But that gives Massola’s exposé something of the stench of sour grapes. Jericho’s article was critical of both the Oz and, in particular, its News Ltd stablemate Sky News – a point that the journalist should have noted in his report. It was also regrettable that the article was posted without a link to Jericho’s post to enable readers to judge for themselves. Grog also notes that Massola has known his real identity since November, which makes his decision to publish now a matter of further interest.
Whether in anticipation of or response to the Twitter outrage, the Oz posted an editorial shortly after Massola’s story broke, justifying their story on the basis that Jericho was “influencing the public debate” because of Scott’s actions. But Jericho couldn’t have known who’d read his article. In fact, as a hitherto largely unknown blogger, it would have been verging on megalomaniacal for him to think his argument would prove so influential.
The Australian asserted the “public’s right to know”, a worthy principle which in practice so often reflects its invoker’s own agenda. But someone whose occasional thoughts are read with interest by a small number of Canberra insiders is hardly a prime candidate for public tarring and feathering. It feels rather like the Oz opted to play the anonymous man instead of the ball.
Nevertheless, here’s where I become slightly uncomfortable. I’ve just accused the Australian of having an agenda beyond the explicit text of what was in its article – a greater purpose that has affected what they’ve chosen to write, and which they’ve chosen to leave out. This view has a dramatic effect on how I choose to read their article. But when it comes to Grog’s blog, we’ve had no access to the same information because of his anonymity, and that makes it far harder for us assess what he has to say.
Now, I’m not saying that every anonymous scribe should immediately be unmasked by James Massola – for one thing, it would make his column dreadfully dull. But it means that we have to read anonymous writers’ work with considerably more skepticism than we would if they identified themselves. I mean, sure – Grog said he was a public servant – but who hasn’t claimed to be a public servant now and then? Even I once, did to try and impress a girl at bar in Canberra. And here’s the second useful piece of information contained in this article: it didn’t work.
But I disagree that on this occasion, any “public’s right to know” justifies the disruption being caused to Jericho’s life. Mark Scott’s directions to his news team are ultimately his call as ABC editor-in-chief, and it’s unreasonable to hold the authors of articles whose critiques he may choose to adopt responsible for them.
There’s also an argument that Jericho is somewhat responsible for his outing himself, which gives us Useful Lesson #3 from this story. If you’re worried about having the sensitive identity behind your Twitter account exposed, it’s probably best not to attend a conference full of high-profile tweeters, hiding behind the fig-leaf of a nametag without a surname.
And yet Jericho voluntarily entered a room full of journalists. Which is why it’s a bit peculiar that people are so furious with Massola, who’s paid to report interesting tidbits from Canberra – surely a struggle at the best of times. It would have been difficult for him to resist a story that sat down at the same conference table. And his moral obligation to respect Grog’s chosen limits on his hidden identity is, in such circumstances, a question of politeness rather than duty.
So where does this leave us? First, we’ve learnt that some guy in the nation’s film bureaucracy is a pretty darn smart analyst, except when it comes to decisions about attending conferences. I think Jericho should keep his job, and be given the vital task of preventing triviality in the Australian film industry. With Grog on deck, there’ll be no more Danny Deckchairs.
Secondly, we’ve learned that the nation’s tweeters don’t like James Massola very much at the moment. And do like Jericho rather a lot. Then again, they don’t know him personally.
Thirdly, it’s difficult to preserve your anonymity once your work enters the public sphere, and that it’s probably best not to try. If even the mighty Top Gear can’t keep the Stig’s identity under wraps, what hope has anyone else got?
And finally, we’ve learned that the Australian‘s difficulty identifying whether an issue is too trivial to receive column space hasn’t entirely been corrected.