We’re under attack!

You take a big risk when you publish something online in the hope it won’t be identified with you. I have firsthand experience of this, but I won’t share it because, well, now I know.

I got quite a jolt when a then-pseudonymous @GrogsGamut wished me luck with this blog on Twitter – I had not thought about this page for a long time, and recoiled at the idea that any of my idols who should decide to follow my tweets might actually click this link.

But speaking of Grog, this has been a terrible week for alcohol. Everything alcohol stands for – slurred speech, blurred vision and walking in crooked lines – has taken a beating.

Slurred speech took a beating over the long weekend, as it does every time there is a major debating tournament. Sydney University hosted the Australian Women’s Debating Championship, and yesterday afternoon they won it. In the final, they overcame the first Macquarie team to reach a final in many years, which is my main cause for celebrating. Alcohol is in plentiful supply at most tournaments, but the finalist debaters are pillars of reason and coherence, and sometimes even sobriety, and livetweeting can do them no justice.

Blurred vision suffered a blow last Thursday at the Media140 “OzPolitics” conference in Old Parliament House, Canberra. OzPolitics brought together a range of local and international guest thinkers and talkers from across the fields of politics, journalism, the public service and diplomacy. In attendance were the kinds of people who would listen to guests like this, including many people in the very same fields. This led some to criticise the “navel gazing” that characterised some of the discussions. Without missing the point of this criticism, this kind of introspection is a necessary part of a day that brings together people who use social media to discuss these uses. It is even partly what we signed up for, and some amount of it is healthy.

We might just feel queasy when we see our reflections in the giant dual twitstreams framing the stage. Even faultlessly intelligent tweeps have gut reactions to things, they’re just better at rationalising them as criticism of others rather than natural emotional responses to themselves. This is a little bit like hearing your own voice on an answering machine. We cringe, but our words can still be constructive, and we are free to adjust our tone in future if we find ourselves snarky. As long as we do not gather resentment for each other, on balance we are better off.

Social media is chaotic, so a coherent take-home explanation of it would have been highly suspicious. But this was a day for throwing ideas out into the open, and for us in the audience to catch as many as we could. I certainly came away with a more developed understanding of some issues that social media raise. I keep coming back to US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich’s eloquent analysis of the Obama campaign’s social media strategy, and its discovery of the principle that most social rules in the real world translate directly into the virtual world.

If ever the witty one-liners overcome the revelations and insights from the day, it is because they evoke a more interesting story. The message for communicators is to use stories in their presentations, as Claire fluidly did, and the message for the rest of us is to take good notes – and not to panic, because big ideas can manifest themselves sometimes in more subtle ways.

It may have been a busy day for our brains, and we might not know the exact direction in which things are going, but the most obvious thing must be that these matters are complicated. If we understand more of the complications then that’s a victory for clear vision over blurred.

Of course, we know that more transpired at OzPolitics than was in the program, and that led to the weekend’s issue of walking in crooked lines, which is something The Australian did quicker than you can say “No, I’m Sparticus.”

In matters of newsprint, lines are considered to be crooked if the ordinary reader is distracted by what is between them. That happened to James Massola’s piece about Greg Jericho, which is Grog’s Gamut’s real name, by the way. This 900 word article was a spitball in the Twittersphere’s eye, and it got angry.

This anger was, from my point of view, overtly influenced by the high regard in which Grog is held online. He is a child of New Media – articulate, an insider, and anonymous like the internet. The anonymity of the internet has long been known to lead to a sort of hive mind (see: 4chan) (that’s not a recommendation), and the Twitterati hive sensed it was under attack. Massola represented the old-school journalist who feels threatened by encroaching bloggers and tweeps, who can do his job just as well as he does, but for free, and anonymously if they choose. And why can they write so well? Because they stay truer to old journalistic values like analysis of boring policy rather than horserace style reporting.

I find that position fascinating – new media junkies claiming to be truer traditionalists than traditionalists. You can imagine why it would get up any old-school journo’s nose.

An interesting actor in this has been the ABC, which is very old school, but it’s not threatened because the fact journalism has never made a profit is basically its reason for existence, rather than the threat to it.

The ABC and The Australian certainly are holding each other ferociously to account, with the The Drum posting Grog’s response to The Australian yesterday afternoon. Jonathan Green hit back at The Oz today with a war metaphor and words like “spurious.”

It’s a war between the freewheeling blogosphere and the stuffy traditional newsroom.

Monkeys all over the internet keep typing nonsense into their typewriters, and with disturbing frequency, they produce cogent criticism of the esteemed journalism establishment. One side in the war explains this by arguing that the monkeys are capable of rational, critical thought, and if their writing is good, it deserves no lesser standing than a piece by a professional journalist. The other side maintains that professional journalists deserve greater standing, because no matter the quality of the content they actually produce, they are qualified to write Hamlet.

The Australian is the perfect stereotype of the latter side.

It is a war of words, but words can do more than make arguments. One cool thing they can do is reveal a pseudonymous blogger’s identity, then ask “What’s wrong, Greg Jericho, public servant in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts? Don’t you want to be like a real journalist?”

Twitter, to use one of my favourite expressions, duly lit up like a Christmas tree of hate, mounting a counter-attack on the article’s motives, hypocrisy, newsworthiness and reasoning.

To state the obvious, we can only speculate on the (assuredly evil) motives of James Massola. But any attack on his motives will be ineffective, even if they happen to be correct, because they don’t preclude the story from being legitimate. If James Massola has an axe to grind, then presuming no conflicts of interest, the story could still be fair and balanced.

These attacks are also ineffective because they can be ridiculed as a conspiracy theory, which among other things, gradually siphons legitimacy into The Australian’s own conspiracy theory bank.

It is hard to distinguish a conspiracy from a campaign in this context, as both are potent accusations to level at a journal which takes itself as seriously as The Australian does. Even if there is evidence of a wider campaign, and that campaign can be proven as bias, it is difficult to prove beyond doubt that this piece was caused by that campaign.

Hypocrisy attacks don’t advance the war, either, although they are a fun game for those who already accept that The Australian is biased. Stephen Conroy landed a swift blow in the last seconds of Q&A last night, pointing out that in the South Australian election earlier this year, News Ltd condemned revealing the identity of anonymous bloggers as an attack on free speech. The Oz is undoubtedly hypocritical for doing exactly that, and it knows this, so it will just ignore this attack (one advantage of being a news outlet is the influence you have in selecting the news).

But hypocrisy doesn’t make someone wrong now – it leaves open the possibility that the person was wrong before, and has now corrected their mistake. The hypocrisy attack can do no more than undermine someone’s credibility by suggesting they draw careless or prejudiced conclusions. This might be useful in, dare I say, a broader campaign, but it is insufficient to prove the paper is wrong now. As for the paper, it would have been smart to pre-empt the attack by acknowledging its previous stance and explaining either why the current situation is different or why its new principle is better than its old one.

Newsworthiness attacks are more substantive. As Jay Rosen was quoted on The Australian’s site today, just because there is no ‘right to anonymity’ doesn’t mean some justification isn’t needed in this situation. Tobias Zeigler on Pure Poison, whose virtually instantaneous post contained probably the most developed analysis so far, made a strong case that the article was far more in the newspaper’s own interest than the public’s. He pointed out that Grog’s readers showed remarkably little interest in his identity, which undermines this assertion by Massola today:

“Jericho was anonymous, and public interest in his identity was growing parallel to his influence.”

This may be true, in the sense that these two lines are parallel also. But the misuse of ‘parallel’ is not what makes this sentence confusing – it is the very assertive use of “public interest,” whether the term is referring to something the paper is duty-bound to report, or alleging that a sizeable proportion of the community is growing ever more curious about Grog’s true identity. Then there’s the term ‘influence,’ which also needs explaining – how is it measured, what shall be defined as ‘critical mass’ and why is The Australian the arbiter of it?

But if there is a valid argument beneath this unflattering disguise, it lies in that hurried sentence.

Which leads finally to the attacks on The Australian’s reasoning, which are the most potent. The assertion of some public interest being served, the suggestions that the “partisan” nature of Mr Jericho’s posts was improper and that he might have not taken leave for his day at Media140 are all dodgy. From the posts I have read so far (which is far from them all!), there seems to be a consensus that Massola would have been better off leaving this stuff out.

The act of outing Grog was nothing if not interesting, and the burden of proving this act was not improper is actually fairly low. The fuss that has been kicked up proves there are many issues to discuss here.

Massola had an opportunity to lead this debate intellectually rather than to bluster self justification. As I tweeted this morning, this is what it sounds like to me – Massola was wrong-footed by the backlash from his article, and reflexively defended himself with the nearest available indignation and ideology, without realising the simple, rational arguments for what he did and the wider impacts on politics and journalism.

This is horridly easy for me to say, though – as an unaffected outsider with the benefit of hindsight, who is probably only aware of half the issues this event raises because of all the analysis I’ve read written by smarter people than me over the last few days. And besides, I’ve had a fairly good week. A well-known public servant I admire called @grogsgamut followed me on Twitter and encouraged me to write more, so I’m sort of on a high.

What this seems to boil down to is that Massola was well within his rights and his profession to write his story, although he does seem to be a bit of a prick (when you’re done explaining why your actions were allowable, try explaining why they were nice…). And his bluster since then has been unconvincing, only fuelling the criticism that the paper has attracted recently. But as a private enterprise, The Australian is of course welcome to take any editorial lines it wants, and to post the identities of people it wants. It is limited only by the law. It could consider itself a relatively prestigious or trustworthy institution, and frequently flout this standard in the eyes of some portion of its readers, and it would not be doing anything wrong per se.

But it is our only national broadsheet, so we might hope for better.

I’m sorry for the difficult situation in which Grog has been left. It won’t be helped by assigning blame, but for the sake of public discourse, let’s continue the debate Massola seems to inadvertently have started, the bastard.

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  1. #1 by SM on Wednesday 29 September 2010 - 9:59 am

    Great post. You have succinctly covered the crux of the matter.

    How was Grogs being more influential – what is the evidence
    Where was the Oz’s evidence that his identity was a matter of speculation. As far as I can tell the only interest was from the media itself. I particularly note that several journo’s from that publication were previously attacking Grogs on twitter for having a pseudonym (shortly after the original piece).

    Perhaps this is another case of journalists now only being interested in what other journalists think.

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