The Australian and the new Battle of Jericho

When the Israelites crossed the River Jordan into the land of Canaan, they came upon the city of Jericho. God spoke to the leader of the Israelites, Joshua, saying he and seven priests should walk around the city once a day with the Ark of the Covenant, until the seventh day, at which time they were to march around the city seven times and then sound their ram’s horns. This Joshua and the priests did. The walls of Jericho collapsed, being particularly susceptible to bad music, enabling the Israelites to storm into the city, slaying every man, woman and child (barring the Canaanite traitor Rahab and her family, who had provided Joshua’s spies with shelter, and possibly other services). Once Joshua ensured Jericho was completely burned to the ground, he declared that anyone who attempted to rebuild the city would pay the price of their firstborn son (at the time it would seem, firstborn sons were routinely the subject of honour killings to “right” the apparent wrongs committed by their daddies, or were sacrificed to prove their daddies’ faith or allegiance to something, like a god for instance). A rather gruesome Biblical tale, but thankfully one that carbon dating and other methods have shown to be completely fictitious.

Fast forward a few thousand years to the present day, where a not altogether dissimilar battle is taking place. Sure, it doesn’t involve child sacrifices or indiscriminate killing. At least not yet. But bad music has been aired, walls have fallen down, people have been burned, and some sections of the Australian twittering class consider that threats have been made, if not against their firstborns, then against their “rights”.

For those few who don’t know, Grog’s Gamut is a blog written by a public servant, which came to prominence during the 2010 federal election campaign. The author of the blog remained anonymous until recently. He strongly criticised the news media’s coverage of the campaign, as many others were doing, but also made some suggestions for how to improve the coverage. The ABC decided to heed Grog’s advice, leading some sections of the media to conclude that discovering and revealing the true identity of the public servant behind Grog’s Gamut was in the public interest. On Monday, September 27, 2010, James Massola, the Joshua of our little story, wrote in The Australian that the public servant behind Grog’s Gamut was one Greg Jericho. So began the new Battle of Jericho, otherwise known as Groggate.

With the ram’s horns blown, and the Grog’s Gamut persona crumbling around him, Jericho has been exposed. Defending him and the right to anonymity are the Twitterati, armed with their virtual vuvuzelas loaded with 140 character bursts of noise, which make a worse racket than ram’s horns.

What’s got everyone so hot under the collar? Why shouldn’t Jericho have been unmasked? It’s an interesting question, but as we shall see, not the most important one.

The title of Massola’s (controversial) article is “Controversial political blogger unmasked as a federal public servant“. Besides the fact that we already knew beforehand that the Grog’s Gamut blog was written by a public servant, one must ask, what makes Jericho controversial, and in whose eyes is there a controversy? There is little evidence, as far as I can see, that anyone other than The Australian found any controversy whatever in the fact that Grog’s Gamut was written by a public servant. In fact, one is hard pressed to find evidence that The Australian itself considered Grog’s Gamut to be controversial. The only two references to Grog’s Gamut in The Australian I can find prior to September 27 is the article, written by Amanda Meade, detailing the events leading to the ABC’s change in the way they covered the 2010 election, and another written by Massola pointing out the increasing relevance of Twitter and blogs. Both articles paint Grog’s Gamut in a neutral-tending-towards-positive light. Not a hint of controversy anywhere. Tellingly, Massola writes of blogs and tweets:

And as Grog’s post shows they are increasingly relevant, whatever the identity of the poster.

(Emphasis mine.) This glaring absence of any prior mention of controversy in relation to Grog’s Gamut hints at mischief on the part of James Massola and The Australian. This post hoc rationalisation of the decision to out Jericho on the basis of public interest is a cloak weaved of the finest sanctimony, designed to obscure the newspaper’s real reason (if one can call it a reason) for revealing Jericho’s name: opportunism. There are at least two casualties of this decision, and they are Greg Jericho and journalism.

If it wasn’t The Australian who initially labelled the Grog’s Gamut blog controversial, was it the public? Jericho made no attempt to hide the fact that he was a public servant. Yet, I do not recall any public outcry in regards to his employment in that role when his blog gained a little bit of fame. Further, when Massola blew Grog’s cover, nothing of consequence occurred insofar as the original story: that the author of the Grog’s Gamut blog was a public servant by the name of Greg Jericho. On the contrary, the great bulk of discussion was and still is whether The Australian newspaper had done the right thing by outing Jericho. Thus, regardless of whether you’re on the side that says Jericho was fair game or the side that says his desire to remain anonymous ought to have been respected, the fact of the matter is that The Australian created the news rather than reported it (for, as we will see, the outing of Jericho was inconsequential, except, perhaps, to Jericho himself, who may now be considering some significant life changes).

Consider that, like Joshua and his priests who marched around the ancient city for six days before striking on the seventh day, Massola and The Australian had known Grog’s true identity for months prior to publishing it. Why?

Consider also that the consequence (or lack thereof) of Massola’s story would have been the same if Grog had turned out to be, not Greg Jericho, but a public servant by the name of Bill Bloggs or Jane Jones. There was nothing to gain in putting a real name to an anonymous blogger in this case, unless the blogger turned out to be Kevin Rudd, or someone similar. Then you’ve got a news story. It seems, therefore, that Massola and the self-ordained high priests of the Church of the Public Interest in fact acted in their own interest.

So, while the issue of anonymity on the interwebs is an interesting one, arguably the more serious issue is whether our major news outlets are able to recognise what constitutes news and what does not, and importantly, whether in reporting a non-newsworthy item, they inadvertently or purposefully become the news story.

Although the main subject of this article is not the issue of anonymity, let’s examine it briefly. Unlike the view expressed by Annabel Crabb, that in her ideal world disclosure of identity would be a rebuttable presumption (that seems like a dubious use of the term, but we know what she’s getting at), in my perfect world people would play the ball and not the person. That is, it would not matter who is saying something, but what matters is what is said. Anonymity is one of the cornerstones of peer review in many fields of science, for example, and some widely read news publications such as The Economist still observe the practice of publishing without by-lines. A strong argument does not resort to ad hominem attacks. Paul Graham’s article on “How to disagree” is an excellent resource to point your friends and enemies to, should you want to suggest to them that their argumentative skills are in need of some improvement. Note, however, that the sort of pseudonymity employed by Grog’s Gamut does not prevent ad hominem attacks. Although it prevented ad hominem arguments against Greg Jericho, whilst this pseudonymity lasted anyway, it did not prevent ad hominem attacks against Grog’s Gamut, an online identity built up over the lifetime of that blog. For instance, it’s still possible to level attacks of the “well, Grog would say that, because based on his/her previous posts he’s/she’s a raging lefty” kind. (Aside: It’s interesting to note how many of the attacks against The Economist focus on the their practice of writer anonymity, rather than on its content. Take this quote from American author Michael Lewis, for example: The magazine [sic] is written by young people pretending to be old people. If American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.)

We may identify, then, several distinct reasons a person may want to unmask an anonymous blogger:

  1. I just want to know who it is, dammit!
  2. I want to find out in case the blogger has a (real) conflict of interest, in which case I will report it.
  3. I want to find out who it is so I can demonstrate my unmatched investigative skills or the scale of my professional network, thereby drawing attention to myself.
  4. I want to know so I can launch into an ad hominem attack on them, or cause them some other sort of grief.

Annabel Crabb’s desire would seem to fall into the first category. The Australian‘s and Massola’s stated reasons are in the second, though, as I have argued, probably align with third. Clearly, the hullabaloo on Twitter shows that some people would argue their reasons are encroaching upon the fourth. I have not seen enough evidence to give support to the claim that The Australian‘s motivations fall into the fourth category.

Nevertheless, many are choosing to interpret The Australian‘s actions as a threat against bloggers, and anonymous ones critical of The Australian in particular: “look what we did to Jericho; watch it, or we’ll take your firstborn.”

Will I continue to read The Australian? Of course, because some sections of the paper are worth reading. I don’t always agree with the editorials, but many of them take a considered and principled view in my opinion (probably the ones written by Paul Kelly; I don’t know for sure, because I don’t really care about the by-lines). It’s not all bad (despite what some people might think). And, in any case, The Australian happened to be in a position to break the “story”, but there’s nothing to say that another news outlet wouldn’t have broken the story if they were in possession of the same information. As mentioned above, the ABC‘s Annabel Crabb seems to think that what The Australian did was kosher, so presumably she would have reported Grog’s true identity if she had known it. Would I recommend the The Australian to others as a credible primary news source? Not on current form, and certainly not in isolation. However, I’m seriously contemplating Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advice of just not reading the news, period. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

Note: This post is late. Very late. Hopefully it’s still relevant to somebody.