I had the lead story in Crikey today, about a successful and clever hoax played on Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant magazine.
Depending on how long the silly season is this year, I imagine this story might run for a while – and in the longer term become part of the minor academic tradition that sees books and Phd theses written on the swelling tradition of Australian literary hoaxes and frauds (Demidenko, Ern Malley, Norma Khouri). There is a nice point to be made about the difference between a hoax and a fraud, about which more later.
But in the meantime, I thought it would be as well to say a few words about how this story came to me.
Just in case anyone is wondering, I am not the hoaxer. Nor is it a member of my family. Nor is it anyone at Crikey. Apart from this, I do not intend to say anything about who the hoaxer is, or isn’t, since even ruling people out can inadvertently narrow the field, as others have discovered before me.
[UPDATE: I have just seen that Windschuttle is strongly suggesting that I am the hoaxer. I repeat, I am not the hoaxer.)
The identity of the hoaxer is known to only a very small circle. It is the hoaxer’s intention to remain anonymous. He does not want notoriety. (I’m going to refer to the hoaxer as “him” and “he”, but no conclusions as to gender should be drawn from that). He did want to make a point.
And I should also say here that the editorial team at Crikey don’t know who the hoaxer is, either.
I have not been a party to the hoaxing of Windschuttle. I first heard that this was in process three weeks ago – after Windschuttle had accepted the article in question. Nevertheless I agreed to accept the material Crikey has published today on the condition that I kept the identity of the hoaxer a secret, and on condition I did not publish until the relevant issue of Quadrant was out.
I know that most people who are interested will be taking this as rich cultural entertainment, but at the risk of being unbearably po-faced, I thought it would be fitting to say a bit about why I have done as I have done. Given that I write about media, and criticise journalists, I am aware of glass castles and stone throwers. Best get my oar in first. Forgive the mixed metaphor.
Besides, sad though it may be, I find this kind of thing interesting – the ethics of it – and it is as well to discuss such things openly. Those can’t quite believe how pathetic that is had better stop reading now.
I know that even the hoaxer is feeling some sympathy for Windschuttle today, and I can certainly understand that. The heat and kitchens principle (as in, if you don’t like it, stay out) is a rough and imprecise mechanism for judging what it is fair to do to public figures. Keith Windschuttle is certainly in the kitchen. He has been a leading participant in the “culture wars”. He has accused eminent historians of fabrication, and sloppy research, among other things. He is a public figure – a publisher, an ABC Board member and a controversial author. He is not known for his moderation in dealing with others. Nevertheless he has been deceived. He has been lied to, and by somone who wishes to remain anonymous.
Before going any further I should say that Windschuttle told me moments ago that he will publish a full response, covering both my conduct and that of the hoaxer, on the Quadrant website. I urge people to read it.
Quadrant, ironically, has published before on the ethics of literary hoaxes. In this article last July. In it, Simon Caterson argued that hoaxes and frauds are not trivial, and not mere entertainment, and not a victimless crime but “like any breach of trust, injurious to culture and bad for business.” Caterson talked about a few of the hoaxes and frauds of recent times, but did not express an opinion on what is surely the mother of them all – the Ern Malley hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley, and still being chewed over and digested more than half a century later.
I think Caterson doesn’t adequately distinguish between hoax and fraud. A fraud is a deception carried out for personal gain – usually financial but not necessarily so. Some kinds of fraud are criminal offences.
A hoax is a deception carried out, as the online dictionary puts it, for the purposes of mockery or mischief. They can still damage, as Max Harris, the butt of the Ern Malley joke, could testify. They can still be serious, in the way that satire is both a joke and serious. Nevetheless, Malley was a hoax, not a fraud. And so is the “Sharon Gould” hoax that Crikey has made public today.
If it had been a fraud, carried out for personal gain, I think it would have been hard for me to justify receiving information in confidence. I don’t think I would have done so.
But in fact this is a good story, in journalistic terms. Not earth shattering, not life and death, but within intellectual Australia a significant and serious piece of mockery.
Quadrant is a significant part of our intellectual life, with several claims to an important history and present. Witness its place in the career of people such as McAuley, and more recently PP McGuiness, Robert Manne and now Windschuttle. Keith Windschuttle is a significant person and public figure.
The sting of this hoax as I undertand it is to establish that despite its attacks on post-modern slackness, and despite Windschuttle’s nitpicking of other people’s research, despite the fulminating against academic slackness from the right, it is possible for Quadrant and Windschuttle to publish pseudo-scientific nonsense, so long as it appears to fit in with their ideological view. In other words, that zealotry of all kinds has the potential to make people blind to evidence that doesn’t fit in with their preconceptions, and more liable to accept and privilege evidence that pleases them.
There is a second layer to the sting, to do with the dispute between those who say that all research is affected by its social and political context, and those who suggest that empirical research – and science – is beyond question, and should not be subjected to political and social critique.
Others will no doubt debate what this hoax has to say about these issues, and whether it is successful in making these points. I don’t intend to here.
But all of the above – Windschuttle’s position as a public figure, Quadrant’s place in our culture, and these serious intellectual arguments are what amounts to my public interest justification for making my own ethical decision – to agree to keep the identity of the hoaxer confidential.
I would not have made this decision if I thought the identify of the hoaxer was important to these issues.
Some more on the journalistic ethics.
The convention that journalists protect their sources in all circumstances is well recognised, but ill defined, as the controversy over the Costello Dinnergate affair showed last year – something on which I have written before.
In the wake of that affair, the ABC reviewed and rewrote its Editorial Policies on the question of treatment of sources. The resulting polices and accompanying guidelines can be read here.
They have been controversial. Gerard Henderson said in the most recent issue of the Sydney Institute Quarterly that an ABC journalists’ promise of confidentiality no longer meant very much, and that sources should be careful in talking to them. I am not sure I agree with every aspect of the ABC Editorial Policies myself, although at the time the review process began I welcomed it as the first attempt to bring clarity to a murky area of journalistic practice. Nevertheless, the ABC Guidelines remain the only clear guideline I am aware of on the issue of journalists and sources.
The ABC Guidelines have this to say about this kind of decision:
“Through agreements with media professionals, anonymous sources exercise the power of widespread disclosure of information without having to share responsibility for its reliability and for consequences of its disclosure. That responsibility lies solely with the media professionals and the outlet through which their work is disseminated. When the ABC carries unattributed information it is, in effect, vouching for the information to the audience. The ABC is asking its audience to take the information on trust and in that way the ABC is investing some of its own credibility in the material.”
If I was an ABC journalist, as I understand it, I would have had to refer upwards the decision to publish (though not to receive) information received in confidence. I am a freelance journalist, so I don’t really have any “upwards”. I took the decision myself. Crikey made its own decision to publish, without knowing the identity of the source, but I am sure that decision rested in part on an assessment of me and my credibility.
The ABC Guidelines go on to talk about the weighing up process in deciding to make confidentiality agreements. Would I be in the clear under the ABC Guidelines? I am not sure that I would. Perhaps not.
Nevertheless I have done what I have done.
Would I have remained silent these three weeks if this was fraud, rather than hoax? I don’t think so. Would I have remained silent if speaking out would have altered matters of high political consequence? I don’t think so.
So, that’s it.
If anyone has read this far, let the debate begin.