If you can’t defend yourself, you shouldn’t be allowed to speak

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Blogger Grog’s Gamut‘s legal name and position in the public service were today published by James Massola writing in The Australian. Media editor Geoff Elliott wrote:

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

… 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.

Note the get-out-of-free card in that: “if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant… it is the media’s duty to report it.” That is, I note, “particularly”, but not “only”, as a public servant. If you are “influencing the public debate”, an action not otherwise defined by Elliott, The Australian is apparently reserving the right to publish your legal name.

I am not entirely sure that Elliott meant my reading, which is that The Australian believes it is ethical and in the public interest not only to out pseudonymous public servants, but probably pseudonymous anybodies, but given the impact of outing, I think the more alarmist reading is sensible: that is, The Australian will out public servants who are writing about political matters (perhaps broadly interpreted) and will at least seriously consider it in other cases.

Institutional power accrues to people who are willing to open most, or increasingly all, facets of their lives to media and public scutiny: their words present and past, their name, their face, their body, their clothes, their family. Who can’t do that? Well, most of us. I doubt even many of the most powerful relish it, but the less powerful cannot withstand it.

But, let’s take it from the top, shall we? As coffeeandink, who was the victim of repeated outing attempts (not by journalists), writes:

Reasons people may prefer pseudonyms or limited personal disclosure on the Internet:

  • Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution
  • Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence
  • Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, acquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it
  • Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers
  • Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children
  • Because it’s the custom among their Internet cohort
  • Because it’s no one else’s business

Nobody’s business, unless The Australian thinks you are successfully influencing public debate that is. Can’t let the less powerful do that, can we?

As pointed out in Tim Dunlop’s comments, journalists are generally supportive of at least some right to identify pseudonymous writers.

Annabel Crabb of the ABC (from three tweets, here, here and here):

I don’t think anonymity should be a right. Disclosure of identity would be a rebuttable presumption in my ideal world… Rebuttable presumption – ie, you should ID yourself unless there is a good reason for not doing so… @TudorGrrrl I totally think there is an argument for anonymity in some cases. I just think anonymity should be reserved for extreme cases.”

Because of course explaining your “extreme case” somewhere where journalists can find it and in sufficient detail that they agree with it is never going to in and of itself identify you sufficiently to put you in danger.

Ben Packham of the Herald Sun (from two tweets here and here):

If you set yourself up as a critic whose opinions are worth listening to, you owe it to readers to say who you are. It’s about disclosure… Identity disclosure also disclosing who you are NOT. ie. not a member of the executive, senior official, someone with an axe to grind etc.

I think that something that is not often recognised in these discussions is the advantages that many people who are able to write using their real name have. Packham is partly right: identifying yourself as being or not being someone with an axe to grind, or party-affiliated, or an infamous scoundrel or a beloved Australian living treasure may well give your words more power or get your argument taken more seriously or at least read more widely. It is not unreasonable to be cautious about the stance of a pseudonymous writer, or any writer who conceals related facts about themselves, but in fact this disadvantages writers using pseudonyms, including those who are not intending to deceive their readers about their interests. The bias is applied already.

There are many ways that the less powerful are silenced, and conflating having something to hide or keep private with being not worth listening to is one of them, and insisting on identity disclosure is another. Not all pseudonymous writers are using pseudonyms to ethical ends, this is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever been on the Internet. But insisting that only those who name themselves and state their interest to everyone who lives in the country can speak is far worse.

Elsewhere: eGov AU has a roundup of posts.