Opinion

Why the Grog’s Gamut outing harms The Australian

Fair to say The Australian – and its journalist James Massola – are not winning popularity contests on Twitter this morning for its outing of Grog’s Gamut.

As I search Twitter, the first messages to Massola read:

“You happy this morning you fucking pussy?”

“Seeing as your an arsehole why dont you write some thing about the Phone tapping by NEWS LTD in the UK ,coward & bastard”
“So james care to tweet your phone number so we can carefully keep you up to date on our views about things?”
“@jamesmassola is a coward and an affront to decency”

“Appreciate the dishonourable @jamesmassola might have been under pressure re @grogsgamut. So i’ll allow a teaspoon of pity with my contempt.”

“#groggate is NOT about public interest it’s about envy and relevance deprivation. @grogsgamut? Good work. @jamesmassola? You fuckwit.”

“You used to be cool, @jamesmassola. I hate being wrong about people.”

“Who is this @jamesmassola? I want to know all about him and his family. And I want to see some work from his uni days.”

“I just followed @jamesmassola so i could unfollow him over #groggate”

“My take – @jamesmassola and the Oz have taken a giant dump in own nest outing @GrogsGamut. Good luck getting public sector stories now.”

“Shame your grubby snitching isn’t already behind a paywall”

This is, I think the biggest Twitter backlash to a journalist I’ve seen in Australia. (I’m not counting the teasing of Andrew Bolt as that was somewhat more lighthearted in tone.)

It reminds me  of the horrible shock for the Daily Mail in the UK earlier this year when its columnist Jan Moir wrote a tasteless and homophobic column about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately and the title discovered that social media can provide an effective countervoice as loud as the newspaper.

That seems to be going on here. The Australian has outed the author of the Grog’s Gamut politics blog, and the Twitter community is rallying around one of its own.

As a result, the journalist unfortunate enough to have his byline on the story is catching what is from some quarters something of an overreaction. He is probably also a tad unfairly the focus of what was a decision by the newspaper.

So was the behaviour of the newspaper unethical?

I’m not sure it was, but it was certainly unwise, and not just because of this unfolding backlash.

Part of the problem is that the Media Alliance’s code of ethics is vague on the issue of privacy. All it says is “Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.”

To justify its coverage, The Oz is leaning heavily on the argument that nobody has the right to anonymity if their comments can influence public policy. I’m not sure that necessarily holds where the person commenting is not doing so from an insider standpoint, and works in something unrelated to what they are writing about.

But there’s a nother reason why this seems unwise. This year the Australian has fought a fierce (and admirable even if it has got carried away at times) legal battle to protect the source of its stories about police terror raids.

This behaviour sends out a confusing message to potential future sources. Exactly when will the Australian protect your anonymity? The paper would argue that it’s clear that it will protect you so long as you are its source. But for somebody weighing up whether they can trust it with the potentially career damaging move of leaking it info, it adds doubt. Why risk talking to the Oz when it outs bloggers?

Clearly there are times when it is justifiable to identify somebody who is posting anonymously. The obvious case would be where they are engaged in some kind of misleading or hypocritical behaviour. None of that applies here.

But this case looks like one of those times where just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Tim Burrowes

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