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The Australian

Sep 27, 2010

The Grog’s Gamut outing: In whose interest?

Even if you haven’t read his blog, if you followed the media coverage of the election campaign there’s a pretty good chance you know about Grog’s Gamut. He’s the pseudonymous bl

Even if you haven’t read his blog, if you followed the media coverage of the election campaign there’s a pretty good chance you know about Grog’s Gamut. He’s the pseudonymous blogger whose pointed critique of the lack of policy questions from the press pack drew a lot of attention and sparked a debate, with journos and media bosses such as the ABC’s Mark Scott weighing in. Now, The Australian has deemed his identity to be news, and they also seem to have decided that public servants aren’t entitled to hold political opinions. I’d suggest they’re wrong on both counts.

James Massola wrote the story that let the world know who Grog is, including this effort to link Grog’s blogging to his role as a public servant:

The prolific blogger shows a strong preference for the ALP, despite the Public Service code of conduct stating that “the APS is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner”.

Grog has written an excellent response to Massola’s article, so go and read it. He clearly spells out the boundaries he put between his professional work and his blogging – and highlights how the pseudonym he chose to use was part of establishing those boundaries. Needless to say I write this as another pseudonymous blogger in a similar situation, so I can see exactly what Grog did and why.

I’m an academic rather than a public servant, but I’m bound by similar policies to Grog (although university policies are perhaps less specifically targeted at political activity than the public service’s code). As a private citizen, I’m entitled to hold any political opinions and engage in any political action. I’m entitled to communicate and publish any views I hold – but as an academic, this is complicated by the fact that as part of my role with the university I may engage in public comment about matters in my area of professional expertise. My employer wants me to do that and endorses my professional expertise – it’s one of the things that makes me of value to them. But this means that, when I’m offering personal views outside my area of expertise, I need to ensure that nobody confuses my views as a professional opinion or as views endorsed by my employer.

When I got into blogging about politics, I understood that I could write under my real name, in which case I’d need to attach a disclaimer – not only to every blog post I wrote, but every comment I posted at other blogs. Or I could write under an assumed name, in which case there would be no issues with needing to constantly reinforce the personal/professional distinction in my written work. It seems to me that Grog made a similar choice. So, I think any implication that Grog’s (alleged) partisan personal views compromise the integrity of his professional work is unfounded – and Grog himself has offered a sound defence with reference to the public service’s guidelines. So why out him?

The Australian’s media editor, Geoff Elliott, offered a justification, obviously anticipating the negative reaction that began to flow on social media as soon as the story became public:

IF you are a public servant and blogging and tweeting, sometimes airing a partisan political line, do you deserve anonymity? No.

Journalists and editors grant anonymity to sources and whistleblowers but

if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are. It is the media’s duty to report it.

Elliott begins his defence of the Massola story with a point that I think is fair enough – pseudonymous bloggers who are publishing only their opinions and analysis aren’t the same as sources and whistleblowers. Do they deserve the active protection of their identity? No.

But Elliott goes on to some much stronger assertions, invoking a public right and a journalistic duty. The argument isn’t just that there is no principle preventing the outing of a blogger like Grog, but that such an outing is inherently newsworthy. But what does it do to help inform the public?

Does it reveal some form of misconduct or other questionable behaviour? No – as I’ve discussed above, all the evidence suggests that Grog managed the personal/professional distinction appropriately. In fact, his outing if anything serves to make managing those boundaries more complicated. And aside from Massola’s paragraph about Grog’s apparent political leanings, the article doesn’t really focus on that argument.

Does it help the readers to understand and evaluate Grog’s work? I don’t see how. His blog is sitting right there. It contains his arguments and opinions. If a reader disagrees with anything he has said, they can critique those issues – who the person is that typed those views is irrelevant. And I’d emphasise the distinction between pseudonymity and anonymity here. If a person writes anonymously at a range of different sites, or under a range of different names, then there’s an issue with evaluating whether they’ve made inconsistent claims, changed their position to suit the argument they want to make, etc. If a person is writing under a single, coherent yet pseudonymous identity, then there’s no reason their stance on the issues is any less open to critique than a person writing under their real name. You can play the ball fine – not knowing who the author is only becomes a problem if you’d prefer to play the man.

Even taking an audience-driven view of what’s worthy of being called news, did the general public care who was the author of Grog’s Gamut? Grog has picked up a lot of attention among the media, both traditional and in its new online forms. But it’s all been pretty much inside baseball – it seems that the journos themselves have been a lot more interested in this ‘news’ than the average reader would be.

There doesn’t seem much justification for Elliott’s claim that there was a ‘duty’ to report this. The impact of this news on those who read it will probably be minimal, but for the person who has been outed they may be serious. Which seems to hint at the real issue behind the outing – a pseudonymous author was writing content that had confronted and challenged the quality of the traditional media, and the traditional media has responded by making that author’s life more complicated, despite the limited justification under any reasonable definition of news. There seems to be a lot more self-interest than public interest in the decision to run with this story.

UPDATE: Massola has written a summary of the reactions to his story.

UPDATE 2: Other posts on the outing from Dominic Knight at The Drum, Kim at Larvatus Prodeo, Tim Dunlop, Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy and Joshua Gans at Core Economics.

And Tim Burrowes at mUmBRELLA.

UPDATE 3: A couple more — Craig Thomler at eGov AU and reb at Gutter Trash.

UPDATE 4: One more link — from Crikey’s own former public servant, Bernard Keane. It’s paywalled, but here’s the punchline:

When teased out, the media’s argument about outing people — and this is certainly not limited to News Ltd — invariably falls back on a concept of the public interest that really amounts to nothing more than the fact that they think it’s of interest to the public. What particular context do we have now for Grog’s commentary that we didn’t have before? None, despite the best efforts of the journalist concerned to squeeze something relevant out of the blog. And, in any event, what is the issue that elevated Grog to public interest? Not his own blogging, but the media’s reaction to it (which can be readily summarised as “dish it out but can’t take it”), and Mark Scott’s in particular.

Rather than respond to the issues raised by Grog, which of course run counter to the line propounded by The Oz, they’ve simply launched a malicious, hypocritical ad hominem attack on him.

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71 thoughts on “The Grog’s Gamut outing: In whose interest?

  1. Blogging and Nihilism « Liam Hedge's Interwebs Blog

    […] had influenced key commentators in the build up to the 2010 Australian election. The Australian, probably feeling threatened, chose to reveal Greg Jericho because, in their eyes, he had become a key driver of political […]


    […] waist-deep in trouble. Whether it’s a sub-standard personal attack on a politician, a rather unsavory masking of a anonymous blogger, or simply producing utter dross, not a week goes by when someone doesn’t put their foot in […]

  3. We’re under attack! « The Dummer Press

    […] 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 […]

  4. Don’t you know who I’m not? – Pure Poison

    […] So no confusion there then? Strangely enough this information doesn’t appear to have filtered through to whoever was responsible for collating some of the twitter responses to James Massola’s unmasking of the author of Grog’s Gamut. […]

  5. Massola raises the stakes – Pure Poison

    […] quick follow-up to yesterday’s post by Tobias on the Grog-gate “outing”. James Massola has written and had published by News a […]

  6. Smithee

    When will The Aus go behind a paywall so the public space can be rid of them ? Please hurry.

  7. confessions

    Peter Martin has an interesting sub-analogy in his argument that we all have the right to many identities in the various roles we take on:

    [“Outing” homosexuals to their employers breaches this right. “Outing” a blogger using a pseudonym such as Grogs Gammut to his employer breaches this right.]

    The Oz have tried to spin this away as meeting some kind of public interest test, when there is no such public interest. I agree with the comment at Mr Denmore’s post that the best way to deal with the media elite in the mainstream is to compare their work to the work of new media, and find it wanting. To that end, 3 cheers to the tweet asking for the satirist writing under the name Piers Ackerman to be outed.

  8. Holden Back


    Think of all that extra space the head shots of the authors take up, which won’t have to filled by expensive words.

    Just kooky enough to have a grain of truth in it.

  9. surlysimon

    The idea of a byline for every story in newspapers is a very new one, go backnto the 70s and you will not find many, Charles Dikens wrote political pieces at the beginning of his career under a pen name, today the Oz would have outer him and branded him a dangerous radical.

    It seems to me that News ltd (and some other media organisations) are trying to silence any dissent on the Internet. They are fighting for their existence in a new world where they don’t control the means ofndelivering information and never will again, newspapers andntraditional media are not dead nor will they die but they will never again wield such power ad we saw in the 80s, 90s, and beginning of this century.

    For every anonymous Twitter voice or blogger they try to silence many more will spring up, the more they try to silence it the more people are made aware of it’s potential and start to follow or write.

    News Ltd and the other media corporations are increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. They will soon be behind their pay walls and like the barons and lords in England will be heard by only a handful of loyal supporters in their internet castles, slowly dwindling to a bunch of grumpy old men talking to themselves.

  10. confessions

    Some notable quotes from the Oz on anonymous online content:

    [The days when journalists and editors could decide the nature and shape of their coverage of any issue and then deliver it to a passive and captive readership are long gone. The revolution has empowered consumers and increasingly consumers are involved in a dialogue with journalists and editors. – Feb 8 2010]


    [Further afield the issue demonstrates to all politicians that online readers will fiercely defend their right to post comments under false names.

    It seems for online commentary we need to accept that freedom of speech means not necessarily being identified with our views; much like the secret ballot. – Feb 6 2010]

    [The internet is a robust and immediate forum – a modern-day version of the town square meeting at its best. It relies on the freedom of ordinary people to join a public conversation without fear their details will be collected by a central bureaucracy. – Feb 4 2010]

    Double standards much.

  11. Why I don’t use my real name on twitter | Misc and Other

    […] heard about the outing of @GrogsGamut by James Massola of The Australian newspaper. Just in case, here’s a good summary from @tobiasziegler over at Pure Poison. This isn’t intended to be a post about Grog, other […]

  12. Jeremy Sear

    “Will grogsgate finally see the end of the ’staff writer’ authoring online articles?

    Or will hypocrisy win out? We shall see.”

    Nicely pointed out, confessions.

  13. confessions

    Sorry, one last link, this time from Mr Denmore:

    [As much as I agree with others that this was typically cheap and self-serving payback from The Australian, it still looks like a very smart media strategy by that particular organ. In one stroke, they have rallied the blogosphere and twitterverse around their masthead, even if that mob looks like a crowd outside the Bastille, wanting to put Mr Massola’s head inside a guillotine.

    Put it this way. I would wager that the two stories in today’s Australian relating to Mr Massola’s scoop (the initial shock horror revelation and then the obligatory ‘A firestorm has erupted…’ follow-up) would have been the most hit-upon stories on that newspaper’s website in the past 24 hours.

    Think what you like about News Ltd, but like every media organisation, they are in the business of attracting eyeballs to their clients’ advertisements. And in an age when people are drifting away from the mainstream en masse, anything that engages participants of the newer forms of media – even in a negative way – is a plus for the dead trees people.]

    Seems spot on to me.

    Anyone still prepared to argue that a paywall is a good thing in the longer term?

  14. confessions

    Oh, and one final thing.

    The outing of Grog by the OO simply validates the wingnut behaviour of second and third order bloggers out there, who have even resorted to posing as unknown people, and intruding into the personal lives of political opponents and anonymous bloggers in order to harm them. These fuckwits seem to think that if someone uses a pseudonym they are fair game for all sorts of intrusive and unethical behaviour. I agree with Bernard Keane: it’s a personal attack on Grog for no logical reason.

  15. confessions

    Will grogsgate finally see the end of the ‘staff writer’ authoring online articles?

    Or will hypocrisy win out? We shall see.

  16. Bobalot The Great

    One must wonder if Iain Hall can actually read.

    There’s a reason for the Australian’s decreasing circulation.

    Blatant and obvious attacks on people who criticise the Australian’s “journalistic” quality strike me as having a gigantic glass jaw. I don’t think most people will be impressed by this piece by the Australian.

    It’s apart of Australian culture. Nobody likes a wuss.

  17. Grog-gate: Outing as bullying | An Onymous Lefty

    […] for many people, their livelihood is quite incompatible with their expressing political views in their own name. […]

  18. quantize

    Acidic Muse makes a fair point, the reason pr and corporate shills get such an easy run is advertising moula is in the offing in giving them free kicks to peddle their politics…whereas ‘academics and all those yukky elitist types who we know are really only after the government grants’ say inconvenient things the precious doesn’t like.

    If you’re involved in the arts in any real sense you would feel genuine empathy for the kind of insane vilification of intellectuals and academics as ‘elites’ that the right has engaged in. They want servile, pliable, religious dingbats. Goodness knows we have a few here whose only desperate ploy is to nitpick at other media organization’s relatively small transgressions compared to the gross shit factory News Ltd has become.

  19. Fiona

    @monkeywrench A friend once told me “there’s nothing wrong with being a hypocrite” … perhaps he stole it from them..

  20. monkeywrench

    I don’t recall The Australian trumpeting about our right to know the identity of an anonymous source when they were on the receiving end…although I believe there’s more to come in that regard.

  21. Iain Hall

    {Removed — wait all you like, but you can do it silently until you actually offer a comment on the topic — Tobby}