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Meanland: On ‘anonymous’ sources

‘[W]hat bothers me,’ wrote Christian Kerr in last week’s Australian in regards to the outing of Grog’s Gamut author, Greg Jericho, ‘is that someone seriously expected they could stay anonymous online in this day and age.’

Clearly, Kerr reads a different internet to the average reader. Or there’s a mysterious social order he’s aware of that bloggers, public servants and citizen journalists are not permitted entry to, because there’s a profusion of anonymity in today’s journalism, both online and in print.

Despite the heated exchanges occurring between readers and journalists divided by the uncovering, the anonymity argument, as applied to the Jericho situation, is a misdirection – and thoroughly irrelevant. It does, however, throw up questions surrounding journalism, ethics and the protection of sources. The thing about anonymity in today’s online world is that some people deserve it, and other people – PR companies, the military, government departments – routinely get it. This is the crux of the argument about anonymity and why it matters.

Number 3 on the Australian Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics for members reads:

Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.

Margaret Simons elaborated on this on Crikey recently:

Journalists who agree to keep a source confidential are, for reasons of perceived public interest, agreeing to compromise their core commitment to “disclose all relevant facts”. They do so in the interests of being able to bring otherwise secret facts to light.

One group that deserves anonymity is whistleblowers. Think Bradley Manning, think Andrew Wilkie: people who tried to instigate organisational or institutional change but were met with resistance and bureaucracy. Bradley Manning tried to stop two long-running wars by exposing numerous possible war crimes in the hopes that this would sway US policy. In a similar vein, Andrew Wilkie tried to influence Australia’s participation in Iraq by questioning the security risk the country posed and the existence of WMDs.

Read the rest of the essay at Meanland or at Drum Unleashed.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jacinda Woodhead is the editor of Overland. Her PhD research examined abortion politics in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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