Who has the ‘right’ to speak?

Full disclosure: this post deals heavily with blogging, Twitter and their place in media. I do not claim to be impartial on the subject.

There’s no doubt that both the blogosphere and Twitter are having an ever stronger influence on Australian politics, and political media coverage. Sky News promotes use of particular hashtags (subject tags that allow you to track a particular topic) for its political programs, and even dangles the tempting promise that they might use your tweets to interrogate their panellists. (And yes, this has happened with my tweets – there’s something very satisfying about seeing a pundit actually confronted by unexpected questions from ‘somewhere out there’.) ABC1 integrated Twitter into its QandA forum, to the point where Twitter often staggers under the barrage of tweets. The ABC even faced questions in Senate Estimates about the appropriateness of adopting a particular hashtag for tweeting commentary about the Budget Reply Speech – #budgies. ABC Director Mark Scott explained patiently that the hashtag was already in wide use, and that the ABC and other media had adopted it in order to reach that audience. The Senators in question seemed honestly unable to comprehend the idea that major media organisations had nothing to do with setting the agenda there; how could a few individuals have that kind of influence?

Then there are the blogs. I’m not going to list all the blogs that deal, even tangentially, with Australian politics; there are just too many. Check the Blogroll for some of the best. And they are being read, and distributed, and considered in all sorts of surprising places.

Some people are getting a little uncomfortable with that, it seems.

Grog’s Gamut is a blogger. He writes under a pseudonym, but hardly goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity. During the election, a particular post criticising the media for not questioning the leaders closely on the issues attracted wide attention; even Mark Scott quoted the article and cited it as one of the factors leading the ABC to investigate and perhaps overhaul their coverage. James Massola, writing for The Australian, mused at length about the effect of the ‘blogocracy’ on people’s reading habits.

That’s all very positive; but then today Massola apparently decided that there was a deep issue of public concern here, and took it upon himself to ‘out’ the blogger. It was time, apparently, that the Australian public knew who they were reading.

The horrible truth? Grog’s Gamut is ‘just this guy, you know’?

In a startling coincidence, The Australian also published an opinion piece by its Media Editor, Geoff Elliott, proclaiming that bloggers and tweeters had no right to anonymity.

I’m going to quote the whole thing: it’s just that full of irony.

‘IF you are a public servant and blogging and tweeting, sometimes airing a partisan political line, do you deserve anonymity? No.

Journalists and editors grant anonymity to sources and whistleblowers but Grog’s Gamut, or as we know now, Greg Jericho, is an active participant in the public debate via Twitter and his blog. The ABC’s managing director Mark Scott cited “Grog’s Gamut” criticism of media’s election coverage at an ABC news meeting and as a result “we adjusted our strategy”.

Fair enough. But if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are. It is the media’s duty to report it.’

This is truly a marvel of hypocrisy. Bear in mind, this is the same paper that published an anonymous opinion piece slamming the Gillard government and calling for the Greens to be ‘destroyed at the ballot box’. Where was the public’s right to know then?

And then there’s the article ‘outing’ the blogger. He was ‘unmasked’. He was repeatedly referred to as ‘anonymous’ – because apparently The Australian, despite using anonymous writers, does not understand what a pseudonym is all about. He is showing a ‘clear’ political preference, in breach of the Australian Public Service’s code of conduct. Clear character assassination – which appears to be something of a speciality of the News Limited paper.

Massola didn’t bother to inform the ‘public’ that he had known who the blogger was for nearly a year. So why the sudden urge to ‘out’ him now? At the very least, this is a beat-up in search of a byline – and this story, published 90 minutes ago, seems to bear that idea out. Massola has gathered a sampling of the discussions going on today and reprinted them, along with chunks of Grog’s reply to the original ‘outing’.

There’s also more than a bit of second-class citizen mentality going on here. Not five minutes ago, I was told that Twitter was for ‘opinions, not journalism’. (Ironically, this came from a journalist via Twitter.) This, despite the fact that many journalists regularly used Twitter to send snippets of news from media conferences during the election before filing stories. This, despite the fact that Twitter is often the first place a story breaks, and citizen coverage of events is more accessible than ever before. The recent gas explosion and devastating fire in San Bruno is a case in point; many of the first pictures and stories from people on the scene came via Twitter.

Then there are the blogs. Bloggers are regularly derided – we’re not ‘real’ journalists, apparently. No matter how much research we carry out, how carefully we check our sources or cultivate our contacts, we’re still just ‘individuals’ who give ‘opinions. The definition of ‘real’ is awfully slippery. It seems to hinge on whether one is currently employed by a major media organisation.

But it all boils down to this question:

Who has the right to speak publicly about Australian politics, and who confers that right?

On the face of it, the question’s a no-brainer. We all have the right to speak, don’t we? Despite the truism that one shouldn’t discuss politics or religion with polite company, it’s not hard to get into a conversation about the government or an election with everyone from work mates at the pub to friends at the beach to the person who scans your groceries at the local supermarket. No one is suggesting that this is in any way inappropriate.

Speak out on the internet, however, and you won’t just attract differences of opinion. You’ll be questioned on everything as to why you’re ‘hiding’ behind a username or a funny-looking avatar, to whether you are ‘really’ Paul Howes or one of the ‘faceless men of Labor’ in disguise. If you are particularly unlucky, they won’t even engage with the points you make – they’ll just attack you personally and try to publicly smear you.

Public debate, that great institution so lauded by Geoff Elliott, needs to be protected from the bloggers. And the tweeters. It is unconscionable that someone using a pseudonym should make a point, state an opinion, or report news on Australian politics. Of course, that doesn’t apply to News Limited or other major media organisations. It’s those dangerous individuals – who after all, might disagree with the blatant anti-Green, pro-Liberal bias regularly trotted out by News Limited – who must be unmasked at all costs.

I should point out here that News Limited aren’t the only media organisation jumping on this bandwagon. Numerous journalists have expressed their opinions today that there should be no ‘right’ to so-called anonymity (few, however, have advocated applying this to ‘real’ journalists). Perhaps the next point of attack will be other bloggers who post under a pseudonym, such as Possum Comitatus and Tobias Ziegler at Crikey. We may well die of irony poisoning if it keeps up, since these criticisms are coming via Twitter and the blogosphere.

Of course, in making this all about whether someone has the right to use a pseudonym, the real issues are effectively obscured. Grog’s critique of media coverage drops off the radar; bloggers and tweeters defend their right to speak under other names, and – happy day! – everyone forgets that these bloggers are raising valuable issues about Australian politics that are worthy of public discussion. Problem solved. The mainstream media gets to preserve their exclusive club of ‘real’ journalists, ignore the fact that citizen journalism is here to stay – and not look too closely at why people feel, more than ever, that they can find better treatment of the issues on blogs than on TV or in newspapers.

It was the blogs and Twitter that dissected the policies during the election. If you wanted the nuts and bolts of a policy, you wouldn’t find it on Sky News, or even the ABC (something that Mark Scott acknowledged) – you’d go to a blog and follow the research the blogger used through the information and links provided. (And that’s another thing – when was the last time a newspaper provided you with the tools to fact-check their stories?)

Mainstream media might have more resources – but the time is long past when they might be able to claim to be the voice of the people.

These days, the people are speaking for themselves – and they are holding all Australian politicians and media to account.

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11 Responses to Who has the ‘right’ to speak?

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  3. Alex Harris says:

    Well said. I used to work full time in media, ending that life as editor of a business and finance magazine. Today, shock horror, I get paid to consult and speak. I’d like to be paid to write too, but with freelance writing gigs so few and far between, I blog. The urge to write is not dictated by whether I work for a masthead or not.

    Yes, I am in this forum (my blog) opinionated. It is after all, my blog. And yet, many articles that I have read, and even some segments on ABC TV – are laced with some opinion, agenda or bias. This is not a criticism; except where presented as reporting.

    My life is full with the reading of newspapers, magazines and many others’ wonderful blogs, some of which are faster to break news or have more insightful commentary than that offered in print media. It was http://www.americablog.com that broke the story that BP’s photos of the oil spill control room were photoshopped. The newspapers just printed them without question. Huffingtonpost.com breaks stories all the time. As does http://www.ramumine.wordpress.com – reporting as it did from the court room (almost) of landowners v MCC in PNG last week. Sure the latter is biased, but it is also timely and reported precisely what was said by whom and when. It was pretty damn good reporting as that information was not available anywhere else.

    I was first shocked and then embarrassed to be at the first Media140 conference in Sydney last year, to be subjected – by virtue of being a blogger – to sneering putdowns by ‘real journalists’. Not personally, but almost every single panel took a swipe at bloggers. And yet, those same journalists blog too. They even…micro-blog! Amazing!

    What I find astounding is the refusal to acknowledge expertise or writing talent in those not endowed with a job in journalism. A favourite blog of mine is by a mining engineer – his insights and stories are priceless. Another is by a diver, who is also a dab hand at underwater photography, but it is his sensitive musings on life that keep me coming back.

    As to anonymity – could Jericho have been so incisive and honest if not anonymous? Immediately it is known who he is, he will be subjected to censure. He was not commenting on or calling for anything any one of us didn’t also do to our own audiences, whether over coffee in person, in emails or on blogs.

    The story here is not who he is, but that ABC – and for that matter the Oz – didn’t have the same clarity and sense alive in their own newsrooms. It took a blogger to point out ‘we the people’ needed to hear about policies in the election campaign – not how big Julia’s earlobes are (barf).

  4. Endeesea says:

    Yet another damning opinion of The Australian’s attempts at voicing public opinion. Clearly, the Murdoch flagship has foundered. Well written.

  5. Miglo says:

    Now The Australian is running a poll as to whether bloggers should reveal their identity FFS.

  6. dogma says:

    [Numerous journalists have expressed their opinions today that there should be no ‘right’ to so-called anonymity (few, however, have advocated applying this to ‘real’ journalists)]

    Why then do we see articles written with the byline of “Staff Reporter” or “Staff Writer”? That’s anonymous, we have no idea whom that person is. Grog has every right to be able to keep his name quiet, he started posting comments at Pollbludger in that name before he became a blogger.

    Today the OO has proven they will do anything for advertising revenue produced by hits to their online paper, even out GG and maybe have him lose his job.
    That’s what this is all about, money and hits. Don’t link to them, I don’t, I give the info where I read and discuss that.

    Thank God for Twitter and for bloggers such as GG & Possum

  7. Ben McGinnes says:

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    Those journalists criticising the right of non-journalists, whether bloggers or not, to comment really need to (re-)read Jay Rosen’s The People Formerly Known as the Audience and The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media articles.

    As for the comments regarding the validity of either anonymity or pseudonymity, their are certainly arguments for or against either of them. At the end of the day, though, a comprehensive argument against them and especially against anonymity can really only be countenanced in a world where no one suffers repercussions or threats for speaking freely. Since there is no free speech in Australia, there is still some value in anonymity.

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    • There’s something in what you say, but equally, the hypocrisy of a major media organisation allowing astonishingly partisan (and factually questionable) stuff to be printed anonymously while claiming that the public ‘has a right to know’ is truly nauseating.’

      The Australian is hoist on its own petard. It can’t claim the privilege of anonymity and deny others the right of pseudonymity at the same time.

      Using a pseudonym is a time-honored tradition in newspapers. There have been plenty of editorials written under a ‘house name’ in the past.

  8. michelle says:

    I wouldn’t worry about. It’s the last gasp of the past, a bunch of ageing journalists wondering where their power went. I got most of my election news from you.

    • Wow, that’s really flattering – and a little scary.

      Part of the reason I started the blog was precisely that frustration with not seeing issues discussed in the mainstream media.

      My blogroll has some other excellent citizen journalists, well worth a look.

      • rockstarphilosopher says:

        Now that possum has pulled up stumps you’re my first contact too.

        I was going to say the same thing at michelle, things like this are just the last gasp of a dying institution. Newspapers brought it on themselves through their own greed, destroying competitors until they owned entire markets. Once that was done, they got lazy and now someone else has moved in. That’s capitalism.

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