Blogger forced to reveal his identity

I was interviewed before on ABC Radio’s World Today program:

PETER CAVE: To some people the appeal of the internet is getting information out in the public domain without revealing where it’s come from.

But that could change after a court in the United Kingdom ruled that bloggers have no right to anonymity.

A policeman who blogged about his life on the force has lost his attempt to stop The Times newspaper from outing him.

He’s since been disciplined and the blog’s been taken down but observers say the case’s implications are far more widespread than that.

Meredith Griffiths reports.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: The Night Jack blog in the United Kingdom gave a behind-the-scenes look at frontline policing as an unnamed officer chronicled his working life in an unnamed town.

The site sometimes got up to a half a million hits a week from people wanting to read anecdotes about local criminals and descriptions of the officer’s struggle with the police bureaucracy.

In April the blogger even won the Orwell Prize for political writing. But it’s all stopped.

The Times newspaper has exposed the blogger as Detective Constable Richard Horton.

He’s received a written warning from the police force and the blog has been taken offline.

Detective Constable Horton tried to stop the newspaper outing him. He sought an injunction in the High Court but the Judge ruled that his right to privacy was outweighed by the public interest in revealing who was behind the blog.

Such issues haven’t really been tested in Australia but media and technology lawyer Peter Leonard from Gilbert and Tobin says he expects courts here would deliver a similar verdict

PETER LEONARD: I think people sometimes assume that a right to anonymity is an absolute right of privacy but they’re actually two quite different things. A right to anonymity means that you can publish something without saying who you are. But that doesn’t carry with it a right of privacy that’s enforceable against court process and against a subpoena by a law enforcement agency.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Detective Constable Horton’s lawyers argued that his name should remain secret because the account of his daily work was in the public interest.

In that way his blog was part of a growing trend in the UK, but lawyer Peter Leonard says that’s not really being reflected in Australia.

PETER LEONARD: Certainly the Federal Government has said that it’s encouraging whistleblower activity in appropriate areas and there are moves to change the law. However I think that in Australia it is still very much the exception for anyone working in the public service to be publishing comment on their activity, whether anonymous or not.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Political blogger and journalist Antony Loewenstein says Australia hasn’t yet developed a culture where bloggers give the inside story or get the big scoops. But he reckons that’s where it’s going.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I think in Australia it’s inevitable that there’s going to be an explosion in fact of anonymous blogging and anonymous writing in general because there’s at least a sizeable minority of people in society who are concerned, including myself, of the decrease in investigative journalism by the mainstream press for financial reasons and other reasons.

So therefore, it’s vital that information gets out there and gets released and gets discussed and disseminated, and if that has to be done by anonymous blogging or anonymous sources, I’ve got no issue with that. My only concern is that people are protected for spurious reasons. The problem often is that journalists in the West often give individuals anonymity for no particular reason and that to me is a concern. There needs to be a very, very convincing reason why someone is quoted without giving their name.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Antony Loewenstein says bloggers must be held accountable

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: The lawyers of Richard Horton obviously made quite a compelling case because in his instance it seems pretty likely that some information getting out there ruins his chances of publishing what he wants to publish. But at the same time the judgement of that was solely his, only his. And if you worked for a media organisation and you’ve edited et cetera, et cetera, done some kind of checks and balances, I guess that’s my only concern about this. I’m not criticising him per se, I’m just more aligned to the reality that transparency is important.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Still he has some sympathy for Detective Constable Horton

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: My fear is that the political and legal establishment will want to try and curtail people like this gentleman because they worry about the so-called lack of accountability rather than – in other words, what he’s trying to release is going to come secondary to outing someone like that. In other words, they want to protect their arses as opposed to outing the information and that to me is always dangerous.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Antony Loewenstein says, despite his concerns about transparency and accountability, in most cases he’d still rather see information make it into the public domain.

PETER CAVE: Meredith Griffiths reporting.