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Oct 5, 2010

Information Brokerage and Citizenship. More Reflections on Grogs Gamut

The controversy over the outing of the blogger Grogs Gamut as public servant Greg Jericho has now passed out of the hands of newspapers and the blogosphere and on to the desk of senior

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The controversy over the outing of the blogger Grogs Gamut as public servant Greg Jericho has now passed out of the hands of newspapers and the blogosphere and on to the desk of senior public servants, who have some interesting questions to wrestle with.

To be specific, are public servants, on their own time, allowed to engage in what might be described as acts of journalism?

People could be forgiven for thinking that too much has been said about Grogs Gamut already. But I think this controversy is more than a morality play about mean journos and brave bloggers. It is an opportunity to reflect, not only on journalistic ethics and norms and the extent to which they remain relevant, but also on what the differences are between journalists and citizen journalists.

More than this, it gives us a chance to think about information and citizenship.  To be specific,  in the Web 2.0 world,  when so much information is available so freely, what are the roles for the brokers who have traditionally stood between information and citizens? Such information brokers have included librarians, journalists, and – yes – public servants.

So to take the question a step further, what are the differences between public servants attempting to inform public debates, and journalists trying to do the same thing? Perhaps it sounds grandiose, but I think the Grogs Gamut controversy offers us a chance to think through the relationship, not only between journalists and citizens, but between government and the governed.

We are all waiting to see whether or not Grog re-emerges on Twitter and the Blogosphere. If he does, then it means he has been given the green light. If he re-emerges only to announce his departure, then we will know that blogging as an identified public servant was a step too far.

Yesterday the media spokesman for the Public Service Commission told me that, while he was aware of the controversy, the matter had not yet made it to that body. It is being dealt with by the Office of the Arts in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, which is where Jericho works.

There will people on both sides of what is usually described as the blogger-journalist divide who will object to my characterisation of what Jericho was doing as journalism.

Some social media evangelists will protest that to characterise it in this way is to try and shoe-horn a new and healthy form of public engagement into tired and corrupt mainstream media norms.

On the other side, there will be journalists who want to stomp around talking about professionalism and codes of ethics bla-bla, and will object to the idea that people who don’t much like journalists might nevertheless do journalism – and do it well.

My own view is that one of the trends of the present and future is that journalism will increasingly be regarded as more of a practice than a profession. Lots of people who do not see themselves as journalists will nevertheless do things that are journalistic practice, including reporting, describing and questioning public events and public figures.

And when they engage in journalism,as academic Jason Wilson has put it in the past, it will behove them to adopt some of the better practices of journalists – including fact checking, and using the telephone. Of course too few journalists do these things with skill and integrity and consistency. But they should.

I would add to this list of journalistic virtues the preparedness to be named. As I have argued elsewhere, I can’t see that someone participating in public debate has any automatic right to expect anonymity, although they might seek it.

Jason Wilson has been thinking along these lines too. He has a post up on Restless Capital in which he gives a string of examples of journalists – including journalists on The Australian – using pseudonyms, including when they were engaged in trying to bring down a government. Wilson begins his post:

“The arrogance journalists have lately displayed about the culture of online political discussion may be forgivable; their ignorance about their own profession and the history of publishing isn’t.”

And he concludes:

“Anonymity and pseudonymity are not a right, but nor is writing under your own name an obligation. If you are writing pseudonymously or anonymously, you’re part of a history that started long before the current model of bylined journalism did, and certainly before the current occupants of the Canberra Press Gallery got Twitter accounts. What you are doing is not wrong. Any suggestion that it is should be understood for what it is – an attempt to restrict public speech. In the long view, the capacity to write anonymously or pseudonymously has been a net bonus for our culture, and our democracy. If you don’t think so, it’s probably because you have hurt feelings.”

As can be seen, Wilson and I differ, at least in emphasis. I would argue that it ill behoves journalists – who are information brokers, and should be seen to be honest in their trade – to seek anonymity. The Code of Ethics is resonant with this, when it requires journalists to identify themselves before seeking interviews or information.

But none of this will be worrying Greg Jericho’s bosses. They have to consider whether or not it is okay for  identified public servants to blog their personal opinions on politics.

I asked Nicholas Gruen what he thought. Gruen is not only himself a well known blogger, but last year led the Government 2.0 taskforce, which included in its report a recommendation that public servants should be encouraged to engage online.

The argument is worth reading in full. It unfolds on page 20 and again on page 50 of the report,  here.

To quote some snippets:

“The ethic of voluntarism coupled with the openness of online collaboration has typically led to a culture in which status and recognition are a function of the quality of contribution as judged by those who share an interest in the common ambitions of the community or network itself. There are various ways in which the value that this brings can make a contribution to government. Firstly, governments can tap more confidently into online collaboration. Some of those who self-organise around an issue of shared interest are likely to have particular expertise and aptitude which can complement government resources.”

But, as the report goes on to say, the openness of Web 2.0 conflicts with a public service mentality.

“In many ways, these concerns reflect an underlying tension between a social networking culture that is essentially open, collaborative and can turn up the unexpected innovation and a public service that, sometimes for good reasons, continues to be a culture of control, hierarchy and predictability.”

So the Grogs Gamut controversy, as well as affording an opportunity to reflect on journalists ethics, also opens up the possibility of thinking through public service roles and practices.

We should not overstate the import of the Grogs Gamut example. What Jericho did bore no relationship to his professional life. That was part of the point of the pseudonym – to keep the two separate. He never blogged on things related to his work.

The media manager for the Public Service Commission referred me to the policy on such things, which makes it clear that public servants are as entitled to take part in politics and public debate as any other citizen, providing they maintain a separation between their professional conduct and  their private opinions.

Gruen said to me yesterday that so far as he was concerned, Jericho’s blogging, while partisan, was conducted entirely in his own time, and should ideally be in no way the business of his employer. But Gruen agreed that whether or not Grog was behaving as a journalist, and whether or not this made a difference, was “an interesting question for you to ask, but it doesn’t change my view about anything”.

What excites Gruen is not public servants blogging privately, as any other citizen might do, but the possibility of public servants being encouraged to blog professionally. In other words, he favours recognition that public servants are often those best placed to inform a debate. And, if they are taking place in the conversations on social media, they are also well placed to be informed.

As Gruen puts it, once you are a presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter, people take the time to let you know about things that will interest you. Government might harness the power of the well informed amateurs who gather around policy areas. Government can be brought closer to the people who are on the end of its programs and policies.

The potential pitfalls are obvious – public servants being perceived as partisan, or allowing themselves to be used as a form of government advertising (to which one could say that at least it would be cheaper than the political advertising taxpayers are already forced to pay for).

But Gruen believes, and his report advocates, that the public service should explore the terrain, staying initially well clear of the blurry boundary lines and the problem areas.

The Government 2.0 taskforce report anticipated that this kind of activity might become a new kind of public service career path. In which case someone with the skills of Jericho might be – should be – in high demand.

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15 thoughts on “Information Brokerage and Citizenship. More Reflections on Grogs Gamut

  1. comfis

    Grogs we are on your side !!!

    Acai Max Cleanse

  2. Jackol

    Margaret, pro bono is irrelevant, and always has been to the classification as ‘professional’. The point about being a professional engineer or doctor or journalist is that you earn your living doing that profession – you don’t need to have a job doing anything else (and in the past were severely sanctioned if you did).

  3. Margaret Simons

    John Ballard: I can only blush, and agree.

    Jackol:I don’t think whether or not one gets paid is the only relevant difference. If I write a piece pro bono (something I do from time to time) that does not free me from my ethical obligations, surely. And of course amateur doctors and lawyers, or lawyers acting pro bono, can be struck off for unethical conduct. The fact they weren’t paid is not relevant to these processes. The difficulty arises because it is not possible to “strike off” or remove the licence of a journalist. And indeed, if it was possible we would run in to all kinds of awkward issues to do with freedom of speech and who is and is not a journalist.

    Secondly, I have not suggested that bloggers should be “required” to identify themselves. Only that it might behove them to do so in some circumstances. For more on this, see my more recent post…

  4. Pseudonyms and Anonymity – a Previously Unpublished Case Study. – The Content Makers

    […] post is spurred by Daniel Bond, who commented on this previous post of mine, in which I argued that it behoved those committing acts of journalism – whether they be […]

  5. Jackol

    I disagree with your notion that there is only some matter of degree between professional journalists and bloggers. As I’ve said before, and you never responded to, if bloggers do not earn their living from their efforts, then they remain amateur commentators only, they should not be held to the same level of standards/accountability as actual journalists.

    This distinction between the amateur and the professional is one that is well established in many fields – medicine, engineering, law, etc. One’s words as a professional have quite a different weight and level of responsibility than another’s words as an amateur. Journalism is no different.

    Speaking of blurred lines – I also fail to see what the difference is between a blog that is popular or influential vs a blog that is in an obscure corner of the net and never visited. Nor the difference between myself as an anonymous/pseudonymous contributor and a headline blogger. People assess all of the above on its own merits, stand alone discussion, pure argument. None of us, as anonymous bloggers, are claiming any authority – what respect we may or may not have is purely based on what we say, how we argue, and the persuasiveness of our positions. That isn’t true of journalists – they are paid, their work is published by an organisation that has its own standards, reputation and -editors- – there is an expectation that they must meet certain professional standards.

    Can I just reiterate as well that eg for myself the choice to remain anonymous/pseudonymous is a matter of caution. I’m not important in my own right, but since I don’t earn my living from blogging/commenting, I will have to work in the real world doing other things. Should every comment I make be self-censored in terms of ‘what would a future potential employer who googles my name think of this comment’? The desire to disconnect my amateur comments from my real life seems not unreasonable to me, and in fact prudent. To require that amateur bloggers identify themselves (or have no right to privacy of their real world identity) would necessarily have a chilling effect on that public debate.

    So to summarize the very real differences between journalists and amateur bloggers:
    * journalists get paid, their livelihood is derived from their work as journalists.
    * journalists’ work is published as part of an organization that has a reputation, authority and editors
    * amateur bloggers don’t make a livelihood from their blogging as a rule, so must maintain a real world profession. Identification of the blogger can cause problems in terms of getting and maintaining a real world job – not just now, but into the future.
    * amateur bloggers claim no authority as a rule from what they blog; issues of partisanship or bias should be irrelevant

  6. John Ballard

    Your writing, Margaret, is always a delight, but I’m distressed to find someone who can still deploy “it ill behoves journalists” coming up with the increasingly common use of a preposition with an adverb, “including when”. Why not “including those instances when”?

  7. Holden Back

    Part of the difficulty that faces the newspaper model in the current climate is the gutting of the traditional qualioty control mechanisms of things like fact-checking, specialist sub-editors and maintenance of a responsible editorial policy which are the big advantage the model has – in theory. It is difficult to claim the ‘authority’ which comes from publication in a newspaper if those things are reduced to checking typos in copy (if that), and getting legal to vet them.

    I have noted there is a convergence in style and content of blogs and newspaper opinion pages, where information is prevented selectively and with a highly colored slant. Many blogs are actually less provocative and more open to genuine discussion than the threads of various opinion writers, and more forthcoming with raw information and sources for arguments.

    To be bitchy, it must be distressing to journalists seeing amateurs beat them roundly at their own professional game.

  8. Daniel Bond

    Ben,
    I’d love to see more raw data. Even if journalists are understandably reluctant about publishing their “own” data — interviews and such — I’m distressed by how infrequently they link to publicly released information, particularly on news websites. In an article discussing an ANAO report, the very first mention of the report should be a link to the report itself. It would go a great way towards transparency and informing the public.

    The problem is particularly pronounced in science journalism. Articles frequently don’t have sufficient data to actually draw conclusions (is that 15% increase in likelihood of cancer absolute or relative? Relative to what base? Who funded, performed, and published the research?), and never link to originals (so what if it’s on a paid-subscription journal? At least let those of us with subscriptions see it!). Often, they don’t even include the necessary information — title, author, or journal — to find the paper myself!

    Here endeth the rant

  9. jason.wilson

    Hi Margaret. Very nice, considered post. I’m not actually sure we differ that much, but I might clarify that by putting a question to you. What’s your position on a consistently maintained pseudonym and online identity? Would that satisfy your requirement for a name?

  10. Ben Harris-Roxas

    @Margaret I think you’re on to something with the idea of disinterest.

    The issue will centre on what claims to disinterest are made in quasi-journalistic activities. What baggage and interpretive lenses does one bring to journalistic endeavours?

    I think this is something that qualitative researchers have wrangled with – “the researcher in relation to the researched” to use that overworked phrase. I claim no expertise in this area, but from what I understand one of the ways they address this issue is to include a statement about the researcher’s own orientation in relation to an issue, along with any relevant experiences and affiliations, and strategies that you’ve used to address potential biases.

    Based on what I understand qualitative researchers also include fairly rigorous descriptions of methods and try to be transparent about their methods of analysis. This is not so much so that someone else would come up with the same findings but that they can follow what you’ve done. Also relevant considerations for journalism on the porous borders?*

    What could be the implications of this at a practical level?

    Could it be worth coming up with a best-practice checklist for quasi-journalistic ventures to address on their “about” pages or in individual posts? For example describing what they see as their purpose, what experience they have in relation to their topic, what influenced their decision to focus on this issue, what relevant affiliations/relationships they have, what training they’ve had.

    Of course most (almost all) bloggers would ignore such as thing, but it could be useful for those describing themselves as citizen journalists or those who aspire to claims of disinterested journalism. I haven’t thought about in any detail (obviously) but something like this might be worth looking at, even as an exercise in describing what we’d ideally like to see disclosed/addressed if nothing else.

    I’m being wildly, pie-in-the-sky idealistic of course, but I think these issues are worth pondering.

    Re: partisan issue, fair response.

    * Wouldn’t it be great if pieces included the “raw data” for those interested, in a manner similar to open access publications – the interview audio, the primary source documents, the photos, etc. A total culture and philosophical shift would be required and it wouldn’t be possible or desirable in all cases, but I think we’re already starting to see the beginnings of this on Twitter with people posting audio of press conferences etc on twaud.io and twitpics sent from phones.

  11. Daniel Bond

    Having commented prior to properly considering all points in the article (in the best tradition of internet commenters everywhere), I’ve re-read and have to disagree with one paragraph here:

    I would argue that it ill behoves journalists – who are information brokers, and should be seen to be honest in their trade – to seek anonymity.

    You seem to be conflating pseudonymity with anonymity — a common mistake in this debate. By maintaining a consistent pseudonym, Greg was honest in his trade. Through his blog, Twitter, other blogs where he commented with the same handle, anyone could read the history of his writing, and call him out on any hypocrisy if they found inconsistency. He could be analysed and criticised for his writing, in comments and on Twitter — much more accountability than is available from many at the Australian (Massola himself being a notable exception). We don’t have journalists’ home phone numbers, addresses, or in fact any detail at all of what they do outside work. Why is what Greg does outside his blogging any different?

    The Code of Ethics is resonant with this, when it requires journalists to identify themselves before seeking interviews or information.

    Say Greg were to interview somebody, and introduce himself, “I write the blog Grog’s Gamut. Please call me Grogs. I wish to interview you and use your comments on my blog.” Has he not sufficiently identified himself? Surely the intent of the Code of Ethics was to protect sources from giving information to someone they didn’t think was a journalist, and that end is as well served by a pen name as by a real one.

  12. Daniel Bond

    I agree wholeheartedly that there’s a great place for public servants to inform, and be informed by, public debate. I also think that one of the chief reasons departments must control their message so carefully is because they control their message so carefully. Right now, anything that comes out of a department is the ex cathedra view of the Department, and has been vetted my several layers of management. Were the floodgates to open, and one could find public servants blogging, tweeting, and commenting from everywhere on the political spectrum, then it would be obvious that our vibrant public service is drawing the best from a range of views, and the only official word of the department is what comes out on letterhead.

    Or so I could dream.

    I agree with Ben, above, that partisan is the wrong descriptor of Greg’s blog, although “leftist” is not. Grog’s Gamut (the blog, not the controversy) is a case study in the difference between partisan and ideological commentary. Greg has a consistent, left-leaning ideology, that (at least from my reading of his blog) is broadly aligned with that of the Labor party, but he criticises the ALP when it does not behave in accordance with that ideology. The Australian, however, is partisan. The Coalition is right in all circumstances, even when its actions do not add up to a consistent ideology.

  13. Margaret Simons

    Hi Ben, Your first question is a good one. I am not sure where the boundaries lie, and certainly journalism (along with other forms of professional practice and other institutions) is getting more porous boundaries. I think one of the things that would tend to put such acts up the journalism end of the spectrum would include: disinterest (doing it for the sake of informing, analysing and contributing to public discussion, rather than for the purposes of lobbying, or campaigning for a particular outcome or team).

    Partisan: perhaps it is too strong a word, but while Grog clearly had little time for either of the main political parties, it was clear, I think, that he had least time of all for the Coalition. And on particular issues, not necessarily party political, he was fervent in his support or denigration of one side or the other.

  14. Ben Harris-Roxas

    Two things occur to me:
    1) What public discussion and dissemination *wouldn’t* constitute an act of journalism in your schema?
    2) The line that Grog’s blogging was partisan gets a re-run. Is there any evidence of this beyond assertion? (Not necessarily your assertion, it’s a line that’s been run since his outing.) My reading of his blog was that he was quite critical of both major parties. Indeed the post that caught Mark Scott’s eye included a call for greater media attention to the Coalition’s disability policy platform.

  15. Tweets that mention Information Brokerage and Citizenship. More Reflections on Grogs Gamut – The Content Makers -- Topsy.com

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