Well, first of all I would congratulate the outer on their hard work. My name is embedded in the URL of this blog, I never fail to plug my books where the possibility arises, and the column on the left contains a link to www.benjeapes.com, which itself has a headline feed from this blog. So, it would be good to know the art of investigative journalism wasn’t completely dead.
If I was Detective Constable Richard Horton of the Lancashire Constabulary, I might feel differently. He anonymously created the Night Jack blogger, giving an insider’s view of the workings of Her Majesty’s Northern Plod. It garnered awards and has been turned into a series. He took the Times to court to try and stop them revealing his identity, and failed. Now identified, he has been given a written warning, the blog has been deleted and no further action will be taken. I surprise myself to find my sympathies are with the police, in this instance.
Yes, bloggers should have a right to be anonymous, if that is their choice. If they commit libel, or the public interest or national security are adversely affected, a court should then be able to order their identity to be revealed. (Public interest and national security <> sparing the blushes of the powers that be or catering to the public taste for titillation – but that too is for the courts to decide.) It’s also up to them to make a reasonable effort, however. Horton wasn’t so much leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind him as several unsliced loaves. For instance, mentioning his jiu-jitsu activities, when the Lancashire Constabulary jiu-jitsu club only one lists member who is a detective. I have my suspicions as to why, after 17 years on the force, he’s still only a constable.
Under those circumstances, pleading a right to anonymity is just silly. Note that in this case it wasn’t the repressive forces of law and order that tracked Horton down – it was the Times, following a perfectly reasonable line of enquiry now that his blog had made the big time. I would guess Lancashire Constabulary was quietly ignoring the matter, until it became unavoidable.
So, why the reprimand? It’s a question of balance. I rarely name my friends or even family, though it’s no secret I live in Abingdon. I don’t deliver the juicy gossip from work or reveal stories about my colleagues – but I don’t hide the nature of my employer’s business or its geographical location, so Woodward & Bernstein would track it down in about 30 seconds (the Abingdon Herald, maybe a minute). Horton, apparently, was not only giving hints on how to act when arrested (not such a bad thing) but giving out information that could affect cases in progress (very bad indeed). Your work is your work, it’s not your hobby or your life; but even then, an employer can reasonably assume a reasonable degree of loyalty from its staff. 17 years on the force, remember – it’s not as if he was suffering in a hellhole with his blog the only outlet for his righteous resentment.
How could he have played it safer? Easy. Make up names for everything, including Lancashire. Leave out the links to the jiu-jitsu and anything else associated with him. Make it impossible to pinpoint himself or his activities. As long as the made-up names were consistent, the truth of his posts would be unaffected. Has Belle du Jour been positively identified? (No, she’s not Billie Piper.) I don’t think so. Does her discreet use of pseudonyms affect her veracity? Not at all. See, easy.