Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Nightjack and The Times

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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11 comments:

Blue Eyes said...

Gulp.

What happened to the right to a private life and right to freedom of expression?

uniform said...

Lets us see the wit of man after this expose.

I think Newspapers in particular fear blogging.

The "highly paid columnists" hate blogging since it allows amateurs to distribute widely their thoughts.

That should only be done by "highly paid columnists"

Newspapers want to be paid for access to this "highly paid" work.

So, no surprise that a newspaper would pursue this matter.

After all..how dare a simple plod write so dam well , and get the Orwell prize.

The cheek of the man.

Alex said...

As you say, can't blame The Times for this - it'sa what newspapers do.
However, I'll be surprised if they succeed the next time they go to court to protect one of their own sources!

Anonymous said...

Dan, what are your views on this as you are connected with IG.

Michaela said...

Was this a political decision? NightJack was very rude about Jack Straw (who is currently reviewing our libel and privacy laws and is waiting for the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee report next month)

(Sending this in three parts. The link no longer works)

http://nightjack.wordpress.com/2009/03/31/counting-the-cracks-in-the-pavement/

Counting The Cracks In The Pavement
2009 March 31
by nightjack
“Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.“

Tom Lehrer

How the hell did we get here with the likes of Copperfield, Bloggs and Gadget being joined weekly by more officers all telling tales of the ugly truths of current Criminal Justice? How did we get into a situation where the Circuit Judges are quietly revolting and the Magistrates are as unhappy as unhappy can be with being pushed around by the government? Why has serious and violent crime been on the up every year since 1997? What kind of people have been setting the policies that have kicked such a big hole between the Police and the public? Bluntly, who has had their hands on the wheel whilst public confidence in all arms of the Criminal Justice System has tanked. I have an over simplistic explanation. It’s time to name and shame.

I’m sitting here thinking that we have a Lord Chancellor who has presided as public confidence in the Criminal Justice System is dropping through the floor. Only 31% of us now feel any level of confidence in how our system deals with criminals. His reaction? Well Jack Straw has been busy doing the Hokey Cokey with Bill of Rights 1.1 and foisting a Sentencing Commission onto judges through the Coroner’s and Justice Bill. I say foisting because the rather grandly named Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Juudges broke cover last week and said “We do not consider these sentencing proposals to have any benefit. The proposals are not sought by the judiciary or any other criminal justice group. They are unnecessary, costly and unwelcome.” That strikes me as judge speak for “Stop.“

We started this government with a Lord Chancellor called Lord McKay of Clashfern. Editor of Halsbury’s Laws of England, by most accounts an outstanding lawyer and judge, leader of the Scots Bar, basically a bloody good lawyer and well respected. Fit to be top judge? Oh yes. Man of substance. A man guaranteed to put the interests of a strong independent judiciary above party politics.

A Distinguished and Experienced Lawyer

Cometh the blessed TonyBlair, cometh the old mate in the shape of Tony’s old boss Lord Irvine of Lairgs. He blows £650,000 of our money doing up his grace and favour pad including £59,000 on wallpaper. His career highlights involved marrying his best friends wife, introducing the Blairs and providing legal advice to the Labour Party throughout the 1980’s. A towering legal presence fit for the top judges spot? Possibly not but Tony liked him and he was keen on passing the Human Rights Act.

Tony’s Old Boss

As we slide gently down the ability curve, another mate of Tony’s got to wear the shiney golden robes. Step forward Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Lest you forget, he used to be Tony’s flat mate. Surely, you are thinking, he had more qualification than that? Well, he ran the Millenium Dome for a while, and he was Tony’s mate. At least he was some sort of lawyer and he made QC in 1991.

Michaela said...

Tony’s Old Flatmate

That takes us back to the current incumbent Mr. John Whitaker Straw. Well he qualified as a barrister some years ago but since 1979, he has been a full time politician. That’s the man in charge of the Ministry of Justice. It shows.

Some Bloke Who Used To Be A Lawyer A Long Time Ago

That’s how it has been for noble office of Lord Chancellor these last few years. Does the man at the top of the pile inspire any confidence in and of himself? The results are in.

That other twin pillar of the Criminal Justice System, the Home Secretary, how has that noble office of state fared?

We start with the incumbent Michael Howard QC. Say what you like about him but he qualified as a QC on merit in 1982. As a Home Secretary, he authored the quote “Let us be clear. Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists, and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice.” He was a Home Secretary who at least seemed to understand that the sentencing system needs to carry a little weight and that punishments need to enjoy general acceptance as fair. He appreciated the containment element of prison as well.

Michaela said...

Reasonably Good At Law Stuff

Next up, running the Cops, the previously mentioned John Whitaker Straw. Jack brought us R.I.P.A. , sent Pinochet back to Chile and said of pre Operation Desert Storm Iraq “”we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong.” Thank’s Jack.

Perhaps Not Quite So Good At Law

All things must pass and in 2001, it was time for David Blunkett. Regular readers will know my opinions on his reign. A career politician with all the knowledge and experience of law enforcement that you would expect from the preparation of Sheffield City Council and teaching. Seldom has so much damage been done to the Police Service by one man. Along with beefing up RIPA and taking a swipe at jury trial, he started us down the road towards National Identity Cards. He was forced kicking and screaming from office when it became clear that he was somewhat involved in speeding through the immigration status of his mistress’s nanny, and giving the same mistress free train tickets on the public purse. I can do no better than quoting the top cop of the time Lord Stevens “If you are ever asked to meet with Blunkett, under no circumstances should you go alone…he is a bully and a liar.” Just what you want to hear about the man running the Police.

Gleeful Wrecker

Now David Blunkett was replaced by Charles Clarke. Another career politician with a side line in running a PR agency. He was another man wedded to identity cards with a regrettable ambition to have all communications data stored for law enforcement purposes. According to his successor, he left a Home Office unfit for purpose.

More Of The Same

Enter Dr. John Reid. The doctorate was in history. The doctoral thesis was a Marxist analysis of the slave trade. From there until parliament he was a full time political organiser, you can guess which party. He was surpisingly sound on building more prisons, closing up our porous borders and sorting out the Probation Service but he did not survive the departure of the blessed Tony and the accession of the Dear Leader.

60 Watts In A 20 Watt World

That brings us to Jacqueline Jill Smith, another academic but sans doctoral thesis this time. You all know the score with Jacqui. Total expenses hog. Second home that isn’t. Lots of TVs and a lovely fireplace. The current Home Secretary has made a signed claim for her husband’s prOn and trousered the resultant cash. We don’t ask for much before she claims her expenses but at least she could have pretended to check them and weeded out the obviously bogus stuff. Maybe her husband could have done better by her for his our £40,000 a year. Either way she made a blatantly bogus claim and she is set on brazening it out.

Born To Wear Clown Shoes

I detect a downward slope. We start of with one of the greatest lawyers of his age and we end up with errrm Jack Straw. We start off with a man who understands the public expectations that punishments should fit crimes and we end up with a petty expenses fiddler who tries to pretend she hasn’t been caught red handed. Now I’m not claiming that there was ever any golden age of the Criminal Justice System. That would be foolish, but I am just pointing out that there is a case to be made that the people in the key jobs may not have been the best possible choices .

Central User said...

A bad day for bloggers.

Anonymous said...

You mention the Times' justification for publishing without mentioning that all the reasons given were spurious and malicious. Especially where Gibbs suggests that DC Horton was advising law-abiding members of the public to disrespect and obstruct the police and the legal system. Anyone who read his blog even occasionally would be aware that this was not the case, and that Horton was simply observing that the more brazen your criminality, the more you are rewarded by the system.

Hence, the real question remains what their actual agenda was. Simply desperation over their flagging organ? Did he refuse an interview or offer of a column from the Times? Were the Times or relevant parts of its editorial structure backing another horse for the Orwells and piqued by Horton's award?

Dave H said...

"in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source.."

How does knowing his name, age, face etc. help us assess him as a source? Facts about him would only matter if they were totally at odds with information presented on his blog.

If he were not, say, a serving Police Officer, for sure, the Times would be perfoming a small service by unmasking a charlatan, but that's the opposite of the case.

He may not have a legal right to anonymity but the Times's motives look purely malicious. The judge's arguments in support of them are bizarre.

As Gadget points out, would publishing the details of Iranian bloggers improve their reliability?

Anonymous said...

Anne McElvoy of The Times was on Newsnight last week. Her fellow guest was an Iranian blogger who had been reporting on events from Tehran.

McElvoy repeatedly turned the conversation back to blogging and how professional journalists were safer, more reliable, bloggers needed to be controlled, blah de blah.

The Times is looking to protect its audience share, but there is also concern in media/government circles about controlling exactly what information is available to Joe Public.

Labour are trying to fight an election they know they will lose. All they can do is what they've always done....spin..."manage" information and smear the opposition so badly that the electorate stays at home in disgust.

One of the first things Blair did in 1997 was to award certain satellite rights to Rupert Murdoch for his support in the election....that support continues for Brown.

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