Jean Seaton at the University of Westminster has written in The Guardian about a court action undertaken by The Times in the UK to expose who the anonymous blogger was behind the well-regarded Night Jack police rounds blog. This case was also discussed at Larvatus Prodeo.
As soon as the High Court ruled yesterday that police blogger NightJack could be named , the Times triumphantly did so. An earlier injunction, which perhaps was to let an ordinary bobby not equipped with the press defence equipment of a celebrity have time to prepare for the onslaught, was overturned. The Press Complaints Commission to which he had appealed had provided no assistance at all.
We hope that Detective Constable Richard Horton won’t lose his job, although he has been through what may be one of the fastest disciplinary processes in police history and been given a written reprimand. He has already been doorstepped by photographers and his award-winning blog has disappeared – and a window that had opened on to the way in which policeman go about their work, bristling with insights into contemporary Britain, has been slammed shut.
In a rather Orwellian way, history is being rewritten – it is as if it had never existed. Horton won the Orwell Prize for blogging because in an increasingly competitive field he offered such a distinct voice. And because it took you to the heart of policing in a gripping way: it was old-fashioned reporting but in the new time frame of an unfolding story. In particular it reeked of somewhere local, regional, a particular part of Britain as well as the particular place of being a policeman.
The Orwell Prize judges – Jenny Abramsky, Ian Jack, Ferdinand Mount and Geoffrey Wheatcroft – pounced on this blog: it was, indeed, in the public interest and fulfilled Orwell’s ambition “to turn political writing into an art”.
Before Horton’s entry to the prize went forward we did, in fact, check rather carefully that he was what he said he was. He did not come to the prize giving, and the money went to the Police Benevolent Fund (I saw the cheque being made out).
Blogging anonymity has to be tested in various ways. But, surely what matters is the accuracy and insight of the information. No one has disputed what this blog said: it was not illegal, it was not malicious. Indeed, in a world where local reporting is withering away as the economic model for supporting it disappears, we know less and less about our non-metropolitan selves and this lack of attention will surely lead to corruption. So this blog was a very good example of reporting bubbling up from a new place.
What is puzzling is the Times attack. The paper has made an intelligent use of blogs, and has been good at fighting the use of the courts to close down expression. NightJack was a source and a reporter. They would not (I hope) reveal their sources in court. Even odder is their main accusation against him: that the blog revealed material about identifiable court cases. The blog did not do this – cases were disguised. However, once the Times had published Horton’s name then, of course, it is easy to find the cases he was involved with. The Times has shut down a voice.
Blogs as a form are no more reliable or “true” than any other kind of journalism. That is why we started a blog prize – to try to help people to find the interesting ones. This decision damages our capacity to understand ourselves just when we need new forms to develop. After Tuesday’s ruling, would you blog about your workplace?
• Jean Seaton is director of the Orwell Prize and professor of media history at the University of Westminster