NightJack: the Times should be ashamed

by Carl Gardner on June 17, 2009

I admire and respect the professional mainstream press; but the behaviour of the Times in “outing” the Orwell Prize winning blogger NightJack has dented that respect considerably. Here’s Eady J’s judgment, refusing the injunction the blogger sought.

I don’t blame Eady J; I think his ruling may well be sound in law, although if he is right that the identity of an anonymous “whistle-blowing” blog is not by its nature confidential, then I think the law of confidence should be changed. Those who want to expose anonymous bloggers who arguably inform the public of important matters and the grass roots views of public servants should at least need to establish a public interest justification for doing so. On the precedent of this case, no such public interest is necessary. It’s difficult to see, for instance, that the law would prevent the Times from exposing Iranian opposition bloggers. I think they can proudly boast they have established a legal precedent that permits them to do so.

I blame the Times: specifically its reporter Patrick Foster, and its editor James Harding. They have closed down an important, award-winning blog, and caused a much more chilling effect on free expression in this country than any judge, lawyer or privacy law can do. They are a disgrace to their profession.

Surely journalists are supposed to protect the anonymity of sources, not expose them. If the Times can do this, then can it not, equally, expose the identity of any source who, in the Times‘s view, is defying the rules of a public sector employer? That would include, for instance, a civil servant who leaks, such as Chris Galley. Anyone thinking of giving information to the Times must now assume it could appear on the front page. What, after all, is to stop this?

Which brings me to the Times‘s hypocrisy. If it’s in the public interest for NightJack to be exposed – as the Times argued in court (see para. 19 of the judgment) – then it must be in the public interest to expose, rather than keep concealed, the identity of any public servant giving unauthorised information, say to a journalist. That would include not only police officers here in the UK but intelligence officials, judges and police officers in other countries such as Italy and France, and even civil servants in Iran who express political views to the press. Just to be clear, my previous sentence links to no less than ten stories in the Times and Sunday Times this year quoting anonymous police sources – I could have linked to more similar articles – plus four other stories which raise analogous issues involving other public sector sources here or abroad. According to the Times‘s argument in the NightJack case, it believes the public interest requires these sources to be named; yet it is clearly content to use such sources and protect them.

I don’t doubt for a moment that the Times protects these sources because it thinks to do so is both ethical and in the public interest. But the NightJack case shows it is prepared to cast ethics and the public interest aside where they conflict with its own narrow commercial interest.

Professional journalists who work to these double standards don’t deserve bloggers’ respect.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kris June 17, 2009 at 21:55

I've had it with the Times. They've made their money of the likes of Baby Barista, yet they go after Night Jack with a vengance.

Think of the money, lawyers and time spent "uncovering" Night Jack- and for what point?

2 Anonymous June 18, 2009 at 01:37

One thing that bothers me is how the times uncovered who nightjack was. I believe I read the journalist used "the internet" to discover who he was. It would be interesting to find out what methods were used and to what extent.

the other thing that i found distasteful was that the times called nightjacks employer asking to confirm whether he was indeed nightjack. Sounds like sticking the knife in.

From a legal perspective, I agree with the judge in this case – although reluctantly given the circumstances.

3 recorta June 18, 2009 at 09:47

Kris indeed points out the obvious hypocrisy. It would be easy to blame the judge in this scenario, but I think that those from the Times who started this whole mess are to be held accountable. I'd like to imagine they won't work much in journalism again now that everyone knows how faithless they are, but that's probably not the case…

4 Yokel June 18, 2009 at 11:38

Compare and contrast the Independent. Three or four weeks earlier, they knew who Nightjack was, and declined to publish.

5 Submariner June 18, 2009 at 16:30

Well said, Carl. The Times has behaved spitefully and maliciously here, motivated, I believe, by "MSM vs new media" jealousy, and with contempt for the real public interest.

6 Winnowed June 18, 2009 at 16:51

Carl, I am sure that bloggers across the world will endorse your stand. If NightJack had been defaming any specific individual through his blog, there would be some justification in exposing him. A few months back, the Indian Supreme Court ordered that a young blogger must answer to charges of defamation. Though most Indian bloggers thought the Supreme Court was wrong, I took a different stand: However, in NightJack’s case, the Times seems to have lost its moral compass.

7 kris June 21, 2009 at 23:03

The more this is covered, the more irritated with the Times I get.

I wonder how many court cases the Times have run seeking to preserve the anonyminity of their sources.

Is it really down to sour old v new media grapes?

I just cant understand why the Times would want to kill this goose?

The one good thing of this story is all that Night Jack got by way of disciplinary from his employers was a letter of reprimand. I understand such letters are placed in the circular file after one year. Our friend will not lose his job be we have lost a brother blogger's voice.

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