Blogosphere versus The Times: the outing of Night Jack


10:12 pm - June 16th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    


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The Times is taking a lot of flak over its decision to out (and end) the Orwell-prize winning Night Jack blog.

Here is the ruling The Author of a Blog v Times Newspapers Limited.

But the legal ruling and The Times decision to out the blogger are separate issues.

This could turn into an ‘old versus new media’ debate. Or perhaps not, as the arguments about anonymous authors, sources and whistleblowers cut both ways. The Independent was among newspapers to know the blogger’s identity but to agree not to reveal it, in this interview with the author, in which he discussed the approach he has taken to blogging anonymously and the consequences of being outed.

Here is a round-up of early blog reactions.

An excellent post from Hopi Sen who acknowledges blog anonymity is complex, but is angry about this one. He thinks The Times owes Night Jack an apology – and is calling on others to lobby Daniel Finkelstein, comment editor and chief of the Comment Central blog.

On the right, the usually mild mannered Lord Iain Dale of the Blogosphere finds The Times report one of “vomit-inducing hypocrisy.

At Next Left, I suggest that the legal ruling is probably the right one – but that The Times decision to out the blogger is a separate issue – and seems mean spirited and disproportionate.

Monday Books, which is to publish Night Jack, has a detailed account, and is worried about other insider police blogs – Inspector Gadget and PC Bloggs.

Their justification is interesting: “In April Mr Horton was awarded an Orwell Prize for political writing,” writes Frances Gibb. “But the award judges were not aware that he was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions.” This is nicely worded. I assume he changed a lot of the details in every post he wrote, but one thing’s for sure – revealing his identity and the force he works for will make it a lot easier to ‘trace back to genuine prosecutions’.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics sees it as more evidence of a cold climate for whistleblowers.

Chicken Yoghurt is plotting revenge on journalistic sources.

John Cook of Gawker thinks the ruling ‘a good thing’, and sees nothing wrong with The Times’ reporting, arguing that anonymity is often (but not always) a form of cowardice.

Arnie of the Right Student is never buying The Times again.

Fleet Street Blues thinks the short-term downside is outweighed by a blow against creeping privacy laws. (But is praising The Times for challenging the injunction different from their reporting the story?)

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


As I just commented on Hopi Sen’s entry this will keep happening in the light of the expenses scandals, that is to say the media’s attempt at undoing the anonymity of those things people keep anonymous.

A debate sparked earlier on Iain Dale’s blog asking about whether this was in the public’s interest, and my two cents was, of course, no.

Unlike many on Dale’s blog, I don’t think this has anything to with so-called “ZaNu-Labour”, but rather it is a rat-race in the print communications to reveal the most shocking revelations. For The Times, though, this will not be such a revelation!

But it does make one wonder; what will be next?

Is the Queen a member of the English Democrats in secret (and in spite of the legalities of her joining a political party); is Elvis the eighth pillar of wisdom; did Maggie steal Mr. Whippy ice-cream from someone called Dave Whippy; are the BNP in the employ of Trevor Phillips?

Perhaps the age of revelations will be exciting and fun, but not yet (and at present, with NightJack, just seems utterly cruel).

3. councilhousetory

Will the Times be revealing all their anonymous sources from Downing St and CCHQ?

Thought not.

4. councilhousetory

Great leak OH. Be sure to post all you know of his personal life in excruciating detail.

Do two wrongs make a right OH? […] why, yes.

6. councilhousetory

@Carl

Back in the day, when the old man was trying to impart some knowledge to me, he said something interesting on this very subject. Why doesn’t someone pay a private investigator to follow around the editors of the Sun and Mirror, photograph them meeting the mistress, snorting in the toilets and meeting sundry unsavoury characters?

Well we didn’t have the internet then.

The decision was absolutely correct. This case was not about whether people should or shouldn’t be able to blog anonymously. It was about whether anonymity should be a legally enforeble right for whoever happens to run a blog. It was about whether bloggers who have endeavoured to conceal their identities should be able to call in the powers of the state to stop themselves being rumbled.

Revealling his identity may not be in the ‘public interest’. But if newspapers only published what was in the public interest they would be very very boring.

What an awful thing to do. Good work Old Holborn

Good luck to Night Jack, I think Chicken Yoghurt suggested a whip round for a fighting fund, I’m in if needs be.

If he wasn’t anonymous then there’s no way he’d be able to blog about the stuff he does as a police officer. Even though I disagree with his general outlook on things (I’m a leftie and he’s a police detective, so there’s no surprise there), I found his writing quite fascinating.

Just after he’d won those awards too. I’m assuming he wore a mask to them.

@councilhousetory

I feel a project coming on

11. Shatterface

Privacy is a free speech issue: without it many of us would be forced into silence for fear of losing our jobs, or suffering physical harm. That over-rides a newspaper’s ‘free speech’ defence of outing bloggers … UNLESS the blogger is publishing falsehoods or violating someone else’s privacy.

Then it gets complicated and we fall back on notions of ‘public interest’; unfortunately it’s the press which largely determines what constitutes that.

It was clearly an undesirable and indeed pointless thing to do.

Though I thought you didn’t like him?!

http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/26/the-evil-poor/

Rueben

I wish face cancer upon you

I posted on this story today as well because it raised two interesting issues.

Firstl, Nightjack was clearly in breach of his statutory duties to not divulge information about police investigations. Much as his readers would have liked him to keep feeding them information, several of his posts broke public duty laws that bind all police officers, so for him to argue that he should be allowed to remain anonymous just because he’ll get into trouble if outed was a pathetic defence.

Second, the fact that journalists and editors can still choose whose privacy they invade and whose they don’t is totally unacceptable. The Press Complaints Commission are spineless and unable to protect the public when editors sense a story. For the judge to declare that denying Nightjack anonymity was ‘in the public interest’ is disgraceful.

So, in short, Nightjack should face the consequences of his actions with his local police force, but there is no justification for putting his name in the national papers.

I was quite amazed that Sir David Eady QC of GOODSHILL FARMHOUSE CRANBROOK ROAD TENTERDEN KENT TN306UN, a man noted for his obsession with privacy, would do such a thing.

@ 14 :

Some credo about no matter how vehemently one disagrees with what a person is saying, nevertheless defending to the death their right to say it springs to mind…

Sunder
Thanks very much for the mention.
I ought just to correct one point – we’re not publishing Nightjack.
We approached Richard six months ago (or so) to see if he was interested, and I had a long chat with him.
In the end, however, he decided against a work on non-fiction, whcih we were interested in, and set to work on a novel.
I have no idea if this will ever see the light of day now but if it does we’re not in any current arrangement with him in respect of it.
best wishes
Dan Collins
Monday Books

“But the legal ruling and The Times decision to out the blogger are separate issues”.

KnightJack challenged the Times using the law and the issue was decided by a judge.

Laurel and Hardy were individuals but what brought them together was the double act. There is nothing separate here.

#21

No, it’s perfectly possible to hold the position that something is allowable under law, but that it would be better if it weren’t done. We can praise the judge for applying the law, and criticise the Times for doing something legal but wrong.

I am with Tim F here. Of course outing him is not in the public interest. and of course he may have a moral right to privacy. But the idea that who endeavours to be anomymous should have a legally enforceble right not to be rumbled is nonsense.

Dan@20

Thanks for the clarification: apologies – yes, I misread the linked post which mentions that you publish other anonymous police bloggers and writers in book form.

Does #15 fall within this site’s comments policy?

More generally i think we need to stop fetishising anonymity – and to stop conflacting it in our heads with the image of the heroic whistely blower. Sometimes the capactiy to right anonymously can be a force for good. Yet arguably it is not particularly healthy to be moving towards a situation in which some of the big political movers and skhakers are able to excersize power unasccountably. THis is not what i call citizenship. As I wrote on The Third Estate in the wake of the McBride scandal:

“It is possible to establish a popular blog, to put stories in the public domain, and to influence events without ever revealing who you are, and without ever having to take personal responsibility what you say or imply. In some cases this is enables people to speak truths which would otherwise be unspeakable. Yet, at the same time, we should be wary of any excersize of power without accountability. And this is something us bloggers can acquire in spades.”

http://www.bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=127470 Night Jack get your complaint in first

P Foster would have done well to have read this when he was confronted at his door by the boys in blue

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1531307/Student-barred-over-sex-film.html Patrick Foster Peeping Tom

It just don’t make sense to me, plain damn weird…

gr8 work bro, check out my blog when you have the time, don’t forget~

Hello! can’t find your contact, so I thought I will use this, anyway, we got a private webmaster forum ready to roll in a weeks time, pm me if you’re interested.

Interesting article. Were did you got all the information from? Did you type it yourself or you copy it from elsewhere?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Ernie Varitimos

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  2. NightJack Hammered (by the spirit of the Times) « Raincoat Optimism

    […] Sunder Katwala has done a far better version of what I’m doing here. […]

  3. The Convoluted Canvas » Blog Archive » Blogger’s Anonymity

    […] Now, this police officer’s blog was, before this, completely anonymous. NightJack was the fellow’s user-name. He was non-profit, having turned down an offer from a publishing house to write a book. He had been awarded an Orwell Prize, and had accumulated a large online following. The fact that a respected blogger has had his privacy overridden in such a manner has, I think it would be no exaggeration to claim, struck the blogosphere like a gong – with reverberations felt all over. […]





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