Tuesday, June 23, 2009...11:05 am

Bloggers and anonymity

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Shocking though it is to say, as I’m not a huge Guardian fan, The Guardian‘s comment on the unmasking of a police blogger by The Times is spot on.

Crucially, Guardian digital content director Emily Bell recognised The Times‘s move was:

No surprise given that old publishing models benefit from restriction rather than spread of information.

Here is the core of the issue. Newspapers – those great bastions of democracy and human rights – are elitist at best and repressive at worst. 

The whole drive of digital publishing is towards free access to global media for almost everyone (at least in the industrialised world).

You don’t have to have money or influence in order to report or comment on your corner of the world – or anyone else’s. You can fire up a blog, or upload video, or simply Twitter what you want to whatever audience you can develop.

And the old-style media hates it. 

I was taken to task by journalism professor Tim Luckhurst for commenting “anonymously” on his university journalism site (ie in my web identity as Freelance Unbound).

Yet if I had come to him with a whistleblowing story, I would have relied on him to protect my anonymity as a source. 

But of course, the problem with the new digital media model is that people are increasingly both the source of stories and those who report them. 

So how do old-style newspapers respond?

In unmasking police blogger Nightjack, The Times caused two things to happen. First, his blog has been pulled. And, second, Nightjack himself was disciplined by his employer. That’s great – thanks old media. I’m really glad you’re on my side.

This isn’t a popular stance, of course. Even some fellow members of the blogging community seem to agree that blogging anonymously shouldn’t be protected by law. The good folk at FleetStreetBlues argued that “it is a decision which is good for journalism”, for example – though they blog anonymously themselves.

But the problem is that journalism is in the midst of dramatic technological change that is changing the relationship between the media, its consumers (let’s call them citizens) and government. 

The old idea that it’s the role of crusading newspapers to expose corruption and wrongdoing is largely a fantasy. MPs’ expenses aside, papers are mostly full of celebrities and entertainment. 

But now whistleblowing citizens can publish direct to the web, bypassing the media gatekeepers. And I think that’s great. 

Yes – you’ll get a whole load of prejudice, ill-informed ranting and bad writing. But you don’t have to go far in what used to be Fleet Street to find that, too.

The flip side is that, in a society that is increasingly watched, recorded, monitored and controlled by the government and its various agencies, the right to privacy is increasingly bound up with civil liberty. 

It’s a tough issue. One of the things that ubiquitous digital communication brings with it is ubiquitous exposure online. Just ask the people who live their lives on Facebook and Flickr. 

Which is why newspapers, rather than pursuing their old-style self-interest in exposing information for their own gain, might serve the public interest better by protecting our privacy – and our ability to publish anonymously – a bit more. 

[Hat tip: Bristol Editor]

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