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Oct 3, 2010

More on the Ethics of Outing Grog’s Gamut

A large part of the Blogosphere and Twitter have been consumed this week by the Australian newspaper's action in  "outing" the astute but anonymous blogger Grog's Gamut as Can

A large part of the Blogosphere and Twitter have been consumed this week by the Australian newspaper’s action in  “outing” the astute but anonymous blogger Grog’s Gamut as Canberra public servant Greg Jericho. The Australian’s Media section will tomorrow carry even more material on the issue. I have been approached for comment by them, as have a number of others. Journalist Sally Jackson, always a straight shooter in my experience, has written a piece. Others are involved as well.

Meanwhile, I gave my own view, which was that outing a blogger is not unethical, but certainly mean, in this Crikey story earlier in the week.

One very penetrating comment, though, has not made the cut in The Australian. It comes from my friend and colleague Dr Denis Muller, who unlike me is a specialist in media ethics, and convenes the ethics component of the journalism degree at Swinburne University of Technology.

He wrote the following email to  Sally Jackson. I gather it arrived too late to be included in the paper’s coverage, which is a shame.  Muller and I would vary on some issues of emphasis, but I think he nicely skewers the broader ethics of the issue.

Dear Sally,

I am sorry not to have been available when you rang yesterday, and by the time I got your message it was too late to be of any use to you.  I do not know whether my views on this are still relevant to you, but in case they are, I am setting them out here.

I agree with Margaret Simons that the act of outing Mr Jericho is not in itself unethical, but I believe that the article is unethical in other ways.  In my opinion, the main ethical problems are these:

  1. Dishonesty in rationale. The intro contains a gross exaggeration which is then used to provide a public-interest justification for the outing.  The gross exaggeration is that the blogger had “prompted Mark Scott to redirect the ABC’s federal election coverage”.  “Redirect” suggests that it caused Scott to alter the direction of the coverage.  To use a word popular in this debate, that is just bollocks.  As the article itself shows, Scott’s reference in his keynote speech at the New News conference was no more than illustrative of the way in which the ABC responded to audience criticism and feedback generally during the election campaign.  He ascribed no special influence to Grog’s Gamut.  In my view, the public-interest justification does not exist.  That makes the outing harder to defend, if a defence is needed.  It would have been more honest just to out the man and be done with it.
  2. Dishonesty in argument. The seventh par states that the blogger shows a strong preference for the ALP, “despite” the Public Service code of conduct requiring the APS to be apolitical.  The use of the word “despite” sets up the false proposition that what the blogger was doing in his private capacity was somehow a breach of his obligations in his professional capacity.  This is mendacious and indefensible.  Taken to its logical conclusion, it would debar public servants from participating as individuals in the political life of the nation, a situation that has never existed in Australia, or any other Western democracy for that matter.
  3. False comparison. Comparing the outing of Grog’s Gamut – who had merely wished anonymity – with the outing of Helen Demidenko – who had publicly lied about her identity —  is utterly without moral or logical foundation.

Finally, let us assume for a moment that I am wrong in my first point, and that there was a genuine public-interest justification for the outing: there is another public-interest consideration to be taken into account here, and that is the public interest in having a plurality of voices in the public space or, as John Milton called it, the marketplace of ideas.  If, as a result of the outing, Mr Jericho withdraws from the public space, the Australian polity will be the poorer; it will have been harmed.  The harm would be negligible, certainly, but the principle is not negligible.  Ethical reporting requires that such possible consequences be identified and an honest rationale be developed to justify causing them.


Denis Muller

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14 thoughts on “More on the Ethics of Outing Grog’s Gamut

  1. dpantelis

    I agree with comfis

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  2. comfis

    Whatever he does we will still support him 🙂

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  3. fredn

    “The Australian” is an interesting but nasty little paper, and that is just about all there is to it.

  4. deflationite

    I was tempted to say that this act was not unethical but unaustralian.

    But then I realised it was very ‘Australian’ indeed.

    There will be many wars between ‘journalists’ and what I like to call ‘people who are not journalists but are smarter, more ethical and better researched’ in years to come.

  5. Last word on #Groggate | Restless Capital

    […] Last word, and for mine, the best, goes to our marsupial friend over on Margaret Simons’s thread: There was never any “public interest” involved, it was always “journos interest”. […]

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    When a major newspaper is so terrified of the truth and dissent from others they choose to vilify little people like me for sending them a copy of Australia’s refugee laws they are in trouble.

    When a whiner about the BER is caught lying he threatens to sue for “defamation”, a threat that lasted about as long as my “get stuffed” reply.

    They have become so precious it is truly pathetic.

  7. Dvir2

    John Milton actually doesn’t ever use the term “marketplace of ideas.” And in Aeropagitica he recommends “the fire and the executioner” as the fittest remedies for anonymous publications and their authors. So he might not be the best writer to cite in defence of Grog.

  8. Peter J. Nicol

    Hey Poss, tell us what you really think!

  9. Syd Walker

    Very well worth publishing Margaret. I agree with Niall Cook; Denis Muller has written a first class analysis. On the point raised by Jeremy Sear, which I also agree with, I’ve noticed a post-hoc rationalisation has also crept into the News Corp defense: the claim that only anonymous bloggers who feel threatened are upset about this.

    That’s simly untrue. All of us who care about a better general standard of political debate have a stake in protecting the ability of (responsible) anonymous bloggers to continue without gratuitous and unjustifiable outing.

    When. late last week, the #groggate case was discussed in an online chat format by Massola and two journalists sympathetic to his point of view, he/they clearly expected twitterers to have their say; presumably that was the whole idea. I noticed the twitterati responded with the inventiveness of irate schoolboys (a positive in my estimation, and certainly a positive in this case).

    Someone came up with the hashtag #capitalcirclejerk and the group embraced it gleefully. That effectively prevented News Corp from reporting the twitter debate, because to do so would highlight the way so many of us consider them to be pompous w___ers. Very droll.

  10. Possum Comitatus

    There was never any “public interest” involved, it was always “journos interest”.

    When you have a gallery filled with rampaging egos whose intellectual aspirations generally exceed their abilities, this sort childish rubbish is what we expect from people that live in a bubble that is as narrow in its width as it is shallow in its depth – too often confusing issues of trivial personal and industry interest with that of public importance.

    Tens of thousands of words have been written about this and more will continue to be churned out – nearly universally by people that have never published anonymously in their lives, folks that have certainly never been forced by circumstance to do such a thing, and don’t have the faintest clue about why anyone would ever need or desire to do it.

    It’s piss and sticks and navel lint, all wrapped up in a bunch of pretentious, self-serving twaddle – where a faux debate has been created by a bunch of miscreants that expect reality to fit into the limitations of their own life experience and the leadership of a Newspaper that thinks linkbaiting and trolling the internet is classy business model.

    Meanwhile, Grog had to actually deal with the real life fallout of these self-indulgent games, committed by a bunch of infantile, ethical destitutes.

  11. Jeremy Sear

    There’s one more critical point News Ltd keeps ignoring: that many people with certain jobs simply cannot participate in the political debate in their own names. Not because they’re ashamed of what they write, but because their private political views are incompatible with those of the organisation for which they work. And it’s all very well for journos to talk about “owning your words” – their words ARE their job.

    If someone’s using anonymity as a shield to defame or impugn people, then by all means, expose it. But if they’re just using their anonymity in order to participate openly in the political debate, then it is simply unethical of the media to use their resources to crush those voices. Which is the inevitable result of, through making them use their real names, linking their personal political views with their otherwise unrelated employment.

  12. Tweets that mention More on the Ethics of Outing Grog’s Gamut – The Content Makers --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by julieposetti, Emily Patterson, Emily Patterson, Alison Fairleigh, Maj and others. Maj said: THIS sums it up, via @julie_posetti @margaretsimons update on the ethics (or absence thereof) of ..unmasking @grogsgamut […]

  13. Niall Cook

    beautiful piece of analysis from Muller, exposing what amounts to a collection of logical fallacies supporting a flawed standpoint from Massola et al.

  14. Ben Harris-Roxas

    Dennis’ points seem to dealt with the critical issues. The public-interest justification has always rung hollow.