It’s a cloudy affair. The Times’ angle is that media correspondent Patrick Foster wanted to ‘out’ someone he felt “was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions” as well as offering “advice to people who found themselves the subject of a police investigation.”
NightJack’s case for preventing the publication of his name was that he would be (and indeed has already been) punished by his superiors.
Mr Justice Eady didn’t buy that, saying: “I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.”
The Times also reports him as saying “that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds.”
Hugh Tomlinson, QC, for the blogger, had argued that “thousands of regular bloggers who communicate nowadays via the internet under a cloak of anonymity would be horrified to think that the law would do nothing to protect their anonymity of someone carried out the necessary detective work and sought to unmask them”.
The judge said … the blogger needed to show that he had a legally enforceable right to maintain anonymity in the absence of a genuine breach of confidence, by suppressing the fruits of detective work such as that carried out by Mr Foster.
But Mr Justice Eady said that the mere fact that the blogger wanted to remain anonymous did not mean that he had a “reasonable expectation” of doing so; or that The Times was under an enforceable obligation to him to maintain that anonymity.
There are so many elements to this case it’s difficult to pick them apart.
- On the one hand we have a blog which is potentially, in some circumstances, in contempt of court, written by a policeman who is, strictly speaking, breaking his obligations under the “statutory code governing police behaviour and general public law duty”. That’s The Times’ ‘public interest’, or at least the case that they made (The Times have history here – it would have been interesting to have seen the public interest argument for publishing the name of Girl With A One Track Mind).
- On the other we have someone’s privacy.
- But the 3rd point – and it’s interesting that this doesn’t seem to have been used as a defence – is that this is a ruling that has enormous implications for whistleblowers and people blogging ‘on the ground’. That’s someone else’s ‘public interest’.
And that last element is the saddest for me.
With the disappearance of NightJack (his blog has already been deleted*), we lose one more ‘voice on the ground’. While The Times focused on the letter of the law that was being broken, the broader public interest of letting public servants voice their…
…has been ignored.
It is difficult enough to get soldiers to blog, for people to get a genuine feel for the experiences of NHS workers, civil servants and teachers.
And it just got harder.
UPDATE: Curiously, The Times appear to have prevented their reporter from speaking about the issue on Radio 5.
UPDATE 3: NightJack himself has written a piece in The Times on the story behind the case. Anonymong describes it as “reminiscent of a communist show trial where the accused is allowed to publicly confess their sins and misdemeanors.” But the comments tell a very different story of support.
UPDATE 4: I’ve written a guide to anonymity for bloggers.
UPDATE 5: Via Anonymong: “as noted by Anna Raccoon there is now some precedent for investigating and publishing identifying material relating to a serving police office as prohibited by the counter terrorism act 2008.”
UPDATE 6: As you’d expect, someone has dug into Patrick Foster’s past and come up with some dirt of their own.
UPDATE 7: Fellow public service blogger and ambulance driver Tom Reynolds gives his views on the case. Chicken Yoghurt gives his on the media’s use of anonymous sources. David MacLean responds: “Of course journalists rely on anonymous sources, but if a rival national newspaper found out who was tipping off a competitor, they’d more than likely expose them if the resulting story would be of interest to the public.”. Emily Bell highlights the raft of furious comments on The Times’ Crime Central blog. Gary Andrews gives his take. And Journalism.co.uk round up some more besides.
UPDATE 8 [Jan 24 2012] It seems that Nightjack’s email was hacked in order to get that story.