The complicated case of the (now not) anonymous police blogger, The Times, and ‘public interest’

Widely lauded anonymous police blogger NightJack has had his identity revealed after The Times took the affair to court.

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…

frustrations with … attempts at the reform of policing which, he says, has turned officers from “approachable neighbourhood figures into neon-clad stormtroopers.””

…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 2: A couple of Times journalists have gone on the record with their feelings about the affair.

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.

(h/t Girlonetrack) *Thanks to Martin in the comments: if you type “site:nightjack.wordpress.com” into Google, the pages appear to be cached. Don’t know how long that will last though.

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19 thoughts on “The complicated case of the (now not) anonymous police blogger, The Times, and ‘public interest’

  1. Martin

    Currently, if you type “site:nightjack.wordpress.com” into Google, the pages appear to be cached. Don’t know how long that will last though.

    Reply
  2. Nik

    Paul, just look for the results that say …/Page/xx where xx is a page number. These have multiple entries on them. On the page, right click and save as html only. The numbers aren’t consecutive and there’s only 7 of them (pages 8,9,12,14,22,23,24).
    Have fun.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: 7 ways to blog anonymously | Online Journalism Blog

  4. Pingback: NightJacking anonymity « Gary Andrews

  5. Jonathan Walker

    From what I can tell just from reading the Times’ article, the judge did not side with the Times based on the arguments you list as the Times’ angle.

    The question facing the court was whether to grant an injunction preventing the Times from revealing Mr Horton’s identity. There was nothing in law preventing the Times from revealing his identity if the injunction was not granted.

    It was up to Mr Horton to convince the judge that the injunction was justified in the first place. Only then would the question of public interest have been considered.

    The judge refused the injunction because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

    The comments the judge made about how he might have behaved if he had considered the public interest argument were hypothetical.

    The point I am making is that no newspaper (or blogger or anyone else) needs to provide a public interest defence in order to “out” someone. It doesn’t matter if you are a policeman breaking a statutory obligation or someone writing about fishing.

    If you want to be anonymous then the onus is on you to convince a judge you should be, and this case suggests you’ll probably fail.

    Privacy laws do exist (look up Madonna’s wedding pictures – btw I am not sure how to link in this comment box) but while your comment that “a breach of someone’s privacy” took place is a reasonable view from an ethical perspective, it clearly did not take place in the eyes of the law.

    So it’s not just an issue for police officers or nurses. I’m not defending the Times’ actions here, I’m saying that what you do on the internet is, in fact, rightly or wrongly, not private.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Right of a blogger’s anonymity: a selection of views | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  7. Pingback: NightJack update and round up | Anonymong

  8. Pingback: Bloggere fradømt retten til anonymitet « NONA: nettverket for oss som jobber med nettmedier

  9. The Media Frog

    Interesting move by The Times, considering their sister publication The London Paper protected City Boy’s identity for two years. He was not a public servant but had access to sensitive personal and financial information through contracted employment (surely with a confidentiality clause in there) as a sharebroker, which he shared (using fake names as NightJack did) with the public through a column.

    Reply
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  11. Pingback: The Curious Case of NightJack Richard Horton: What Does It Mean For Blogger Anonymity? | Gauravonomics Blog

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  15. edgarlob

    Nightjack Police Logs released under FOI 03-05-2012 are available here:
    edgarlob.co.uk.
    Interestingly Lancashire Evening Telegraph had the identity of Nightjack within 2 hours of Patrick Foster’s original complaint on the 27th May 2009 and contacted police for comments “when available”.

    Reply
  16. Pingback: NightJacking anonymity | Gary AndrewsGary Andrews

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