Some time ago, a blogger called Nightjack started writing about his life as a detective constable in a run-down British town.
His writing was hard-hitting and 'gritty' and - having published three police books already - we approached him to see if he wanted to be No4.
He decided against, and continued instead with the blog.
He had a way with words and an eye for dramatic scenes, and he lifted the lid on life at the margins of society - where the police spend their working lives but most of us (including judges and Times reporters) rarely tread.
Last month his writing won him the inaugural Orwell Prize for blogging.
It was well-deserved, and his blog was discussed at some length on Radio Four and Newsnight Review.
The Guardian praised him in its editorial, and interviews with the anonymous officer appeared here and there, too.
Ironically - given the author in whose name the Orwell Prize is given - if you visit the blog today you will find that it has been deleted.
Shortly - I suspect tomorrow - Nightjack's identity will be revealed in The Times after the newspaper discovered his name.
He fought to prevent this exposure, injuncting the newspaper and appearing in a High Court hearing before The Honourable Mr Justice Eady.
Today, the judge publishes his findings, and he is squarely behind The Times.
You can read the full judgment here.
Mr Justice Eady divides his findings into two parts.
Essentially, the first was to consider whether blogging itself conferred any expectation of privacy: that is to say, if you write an anonymous blog, should others be expected to maintain your confidence if they discover who you really are?
The judge says emphatically not: "I consider that the Claimant fails at stage one, because blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity."
He then looks at the specifics of the case - do police officers (and surely, by extension, other whistleblowers) enjoy any special protection?
He says: "The Claimant is a serving detective constable and his blog mostly deals with his police work and his opinions on a number of social and political issues relating to the police and the administration of justice. He expresses strong opinions about these matters including on subjects of political controversy. In particular, he has criticised a number of ministers. In so far as he has written about cases of which he has obtained direct knowledge through his police duties, it is said that he has taken particular care to disguise the information."
He also says: "Although [counsel for Nightjack] rather dismissed it, a further argument was advanced by [counsel for The Times] to the effect that the Claimant's writing, being 'overtly political and highly critical of central and local policing strategies', are such that the public is entitled to receive information about the author, so as to enable it to make an assessment of the weight and authority to be attached to them. [Nightjack's counsel] submitted that all the Claimant's readers need to know is that the author is a serving police officer. I disagree. It is very often useful, in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source... one may wish to apply greater caution or scepticism in the case of a person with an 'axe to grind'. For so long as there is anonymity, it would obviously be difficult to make any such assessment. More generally, when making a judgment as to the value of comments made about police affairs by 'insiders', it may sometimes help to know how experienced or senior the commentator is."
With the greatest of respect to the learned judge, this amounts, in practice, to little more than a gagging order.
Yes, it is 'often useful', in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source - but if the source has no protection, and will lose his job (or otherwise suffer greatly), then there will be no 'opinion or argument' the value of which to assess.
No anonymity for 'insiders' = no revelations. All we will have are the tractor production stats and press releases put out by Chief Constables and the Home Office - and with what will we assess their value?
Let's not forget what happened when our first police book, Wasting Police Time, was published.
It was full of uncomfortable revelations and mockery of the powers-that-be, and the then Police Minister - who was more than able to judge its worth as a revelatory work, and was also one of the very people that this judgment will protect - stood up in the House of Commons, behind the protection of privilege, and denounced it as a 'work of fiction'.
He later retracted this assertion on the BBC Panorama special about PC Copperfield, and these days has much more on his plate to worry about, of course.
I find the judge's suggestion that 'one may wish to apply greater caution or scepticism in the case of a person with an 'axe to grind' confusing, too.
Does he really mean we must only take seriously opinions or information which is officially sanctioned for release?
Are we not adults, able to apply scepticism and caution without the assistance of a judge? I read lots of blogs; I don't believe every word they contain.
Nightjack polarised people - here's a good debate on the always interesting Liberal Conspiracy, for instance, where it seems to me that some people miss the point about his 'Evil Poor'. He's not saying the poor are evil, he's saying that the poor are preyed upon by evil people in their midst, and that the police can, in practice, do very little about it.
Night after night, old ladies are terrified to leave their homes on some of our housing estates: I think that this is something that should be talked about (and an impeccably liberal point to take), but I strongly suspect that the official news releases from Nightjack's force will talk instead about the tremendous 'reassurance' that their 'neighbourhood policing teams' are 'delivering', and their ever-greater successes in the war on crime.
But irrespective of that polarisation, it's not about the message, but about the messenger, and future messengers on all sides of the political debate.
Leaving aside the strategic question of whether they should burn one apparently honourable man for the sake of a here-today, gone-tomorrow story, with all that entails for the future confidentiality of their own sources, I don't blame The Times, tactically, for uncovering Nightjack's identity and reporting it: that's what newspapers do, and I'm sure he's a big boy.
In submitting himself to the Orwell judges, he would have been extraordinarily naiive not to imagine that, if he won, his true identity would be sought.
Of course, while I feel for Nightjack, my real concern is for the confidentiality of Inspector Gadget and PC Bloggs.
Commercially, Monday Books ought to be delighted that Nightjack is about to be exposed; it can only bring more attention to anonymous, whistleblowing cops, and that ought to mean more sales.
But while more sales are always welcome, it has never been about sales alone, for us or for Gadget, Bloggs or Copperfield. If it had been, we'd only publish glamorous, high-selling true crime titles, and they'd all have been very disappointed.
None of them published their books to make fortunes (indeed, thousands of pounds has gone to charities like Rape Crisis and Care of Police Survivors).
They published because they were increasingly exasperated with the bureaucratic burdens which prevent the police from arresting more burglars, muggers and thugs - and they wanted to be able to tell the people who pay their wages what was really going on.
Mr Justice Eady has just gone a long way towards shutting that door.
UPDATE: The Times have now revealed Nightjack as DC Richard Horton.
Their justification is interesting: "In April Mr Horton was awarded an Orwell Prize for political writing," writes Frances Gibb. "But the award judges were not aware that he was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions."
This is nicely worded. I assume he changed a lot of the details in every post he wrote, but one thing's for sure - revealing his identity and the force he works for will make it a lot easier to 'trace back to genuine prosecutions'.
"Thousands of bloggers churn out opinions daily - secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity," she writes. "From today they can no longer be secure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady. The judge who has become synonymous with creating a law of privacy has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that blogging is 'essentially a public rather than a private activity'.
I'm not sure that this will work for openness - it may make bloggers who currently expose what goes on a little less keen to do so.
UPDATE 2: Although Nightjack's blog itself has been taken down, some of his work was reproduced in The Observer a while back and can still be read here.
UPDATE 3: The Guardian covers this story, and its comments section is interesting. Most commenters so far are against Eady.
'Andreakkk': 'Hang on. Some celeb doesn't want a picture of them taken in a public place with a hangover = right to privacy. Some ordinary person wants to remain anonymous = no dice.'
Or 'Orthus': 'This judgement from the man who runs Britain's libel tourism industry. I suppose Horton is just too poor to count.'
Posted by Dan
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