It's always ethical to reveal all the information you know about someone, isn't it? Is it? The ethics of choosing to disclose an author's identity are identical with the legality of such actions - aren't they? Are they? The Times seems to think so. Bear with me.
From today's Times:
“I love Margaret dearly but the public would not stand for her as Speaker,” said one Cabinet minister who supports Mr Bercow.
Which cabinet minister? Shouldn't we be told? How can we know that this statement wasn't planted by someone on the Bercow team? Or just made up by a journalist, desperate for some copy and with a deadline approaching?
Or what about one of today's Times' leaders, which decries the censorship of foreign news in Iran. I agree with this, of course, but as usual the leader is unsigned, so we don't know who wrote it; we're not able to determine whether this writer, an employee of Rupert Murdoch, is as consistent in slamming totalitarian regimes when it comes to (for example) China.
Of course I don't believe that in either of these Times' examples is there anything scurrilous going on. I chose these two only because I want to accuse the newspaper of selective disclosure which is not always in the public interest.
Yesterday the Times succeeded in having an injunction lifted which allowed them to publish the name and home town of the NightJack police blogger. There was absolutely no public interest served by printing this information. The only outcome has been to create problems for NightJack, for his family and with his employers. So why did the newspaper take this action?
I can imagine circumstances whereby a paper might wish to publish the information: if its investigations uncovered fraud on behalf of the blogger, for example - suppose NightJack turned out not to be a policeman, and his blog a work of fiction - but this wasn't the case. NightJack has been a serving officer for fourteen years.
Danny Finkelstein, who writes often and with authority about cognitive dissonance, attempted a justification of his paper's actions this morning on his blog, where he wrote: when someone publishes then they might reasonably expect that others might take an interest in their identity. This is especially so when they allow their work to go forward for a major prize.
This perplexes me. Let us discount winning a 'major prize' as a rule for identity revelation. Either there's a principle Anyone who publishes anything can have their identity revealed in a national newspaper or there is not. The literary merits of that which is published (NightJack won an Orwell prize) can surely have nothing to do with the justification.
Mr Finkelstein is correct, of course, that readers will be interested in the identity of writers. I understand that pre-post-modernism, trying to work out the impact of an author's personal life on their fiction was a major component of the study of English Literature. Of course I'm curious about what NightJack is like as a man; I used to wonder what Guido Fawkes looked like, before he revealed all to his admiring world; I have an impression based on nothing more than a cartoon that Dizzy is a sound bloke whose company I'd love; I think I'd last ten minutes in the company of Jane Austen before nodding off or screaming; based only on his writings, I've thought for a long time how much I'd enjoy knowing Mr Finkelstein as a person. His curiosity about the world, and warmth for the people who live in it, shines through his writing, regardless of what he's discussing. The question is: does my curiosity entail a right to have an answer?
What about those of us who choose not to write anonymously? There are maybe four of you out there who have consistently read nearly everything I've posted here. You will know that my writing is an act of self-disclosure, and you might reasonably conclude you have a good understanding of my nature. But there's an enormous, gaping hole in what I write - part of my life about which I've never written a word. I never mention what it is, specifically, that I do for a living, or for whom I do it. I want to write about politics, and not about XXXXXX. Because I have published material about Hackney on CentreRight, does The Times have a right to find out the name of my employer and publish it in tomorrow's edition?
Without descending into a post-structuralist dead-end (who is the "I" who appears in this text?), the dynamic is surely this: the writer chooses what to disclose. The reader chooses what to infer about the writer. The curious might do some background research. The public press should point out gaps between the written story and the actuality, when that gap becomes too large for comfort. In other words, disclosure is a matter of journalistic judgement. The hurdle for disclosure has clearly not been met in the case of NightJack.
This isn't a question of law: the law is very clear and found, correctly, for the Times. It's a matter of trust. I trust the Times not to mislead me when it keeps its sources anonymous. I also trust it not to willingly drag someone into the public domain, when no public interest is served, just because it can. Pour encourager les autres? Let us hope not.