Sunday, December 05, 2010

Musings on blogging & the Assange case

In a response to a comment on Mr Assange's ego, I wrote: "I too hope that he (Mr Assange) comes to no harm. The difficulty is that if you poke a brown snake with a large enough stick you get bitten."

In response, my commenter suggested that I was being unfair to brown snakes! To his mind, the responses were more like a murder of crows, a rather graphic description.

A twitter feed from Paul Barratt led me to this story in the Atlantic Monthly: The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange. The story begins:

Julian Assange and Pfc Bradley Manning have done a huge public service by making hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents available on Wikileaks -- and, predictably, no one is grateful.

One of the difficulties Mr Assange faces, and one to a degree of his own creation, is the way the whole affair has become personalised around him. This has, to my mind, led to some very bad reporting.

Consider Sarah Whyte's piece in the Herald: Driven to dissent - like father, like son. The piece begins:

''FATHER declared me a sociopath, mother thinks I'm a monster and this romantic situation is oh-so-very-uncomfortable.''

I wonder what twenty year old Daniel Assange has done to deserve this type of mainstream media exposure?

In circumstances where Julian Assange has himself become the story, it is very to disentangle the issues surrounding the whole affair. I don't find these easy issues, something that I tried to explore in a response to a comment from KVD. At his request, I have brought the comment up onto the main post as a postscript.

In his murder of crows comment, my commenter also said:

Bye the way, you can be more 'forceful' in you occasional thoughts in the Armidale Express, we are mostly aware of what is going on, one hopes that a standard does not apply via Rural Press and yourself.

I decided to respond here to that brief remark because it has some relevance to the issues under question; the commenter has actually spotted something.

In writing whether on my blogs or in my weekly Express column (here for 2010 columns, here for 2009 columns) I do not see my role as that of reporter, although I have played a straight reporting role on occasion where I thought the issue warranted it. Rather, I see myself as an analyst and commentator.

Pretty obviously, I can write what I like on the blogs subject only to awareness of things such as defamation, a not insignificant issue. In the column, too, I actually have editorial freedom. I suppose that Christian Knight as editor could pull a column, but at no stage has he done so even in those cases where I might, for example, be critical of a major advertiser. I suspect that Christian, like my commenter, would in fact like me to be more forceful sometimes because it might help sell more papers.

While I am not subject to external censorship, I do exercise a degree of self-censorship along a number of dimensions.

One is simply what I see as good blogging manners, a second is awareness of legal risk. However, beyond this is the way I have defined my role as analyst and commentator primarily in terms of contribution to knowledge and debate. This includes campaigning for change where I believe it to be necessary.

There are obvious variations to my writing depending upon the platform and purpose. However, I do try to keep my primary role as defined in mind, recognising that this imposes its own limitations.

I can write reasonably well. I can also write with a fair degree of venom when I want to. I know enough about the blogging environment to know the type of writing required to create a high traffic blog.

In choosing my approach to blogging, I know that I have chosen to some degree to be on the periphery. Many of the topics I write about are not mainstream, my approach to those topics can be complicated, somewhat convoluted and sometimes self-indulgent. Because I write a lot and have done so for some time, I am reasonably well known in the Australian blogosphere, but I don't actually belong to any of the main streams. 

I dealt with this a little in Mapping the Australian blogosphere. There I said in part:

Looking at the map grouping blogs by colour, political blogs are light green. Neil, Adrian and this blog are classified as political blogs. However, we (and this blog in particular) appear on the map as out-riders, somewhat remote from the main political cluster and independent of any of the key political nodes. I guess that's what we are too.

In writing, I face a number of conflicts. These include conflicts between my personal and professional writing, as well as issues over the use of confidential information.

I began blogging in part because I saw it as a way of marketing my professional expertise. The need to earn a professional income remains. No matter how much I might like too, I cannot earn an income from full time writing. However, there can be conflict between my professional needs and writing and my personal writing.

The internet is quite pitiless. When I began blogging and was concerned just to get Google recognition, I did not fully recognise what this meant. I didn't fully comprehend the resulting scale of the internet footprint.

I cannot run and I cannot hide. A simple web search by a potential employer or client will reveal all, including the scale of my writing. This would be less of an issue if I had limited my writing to the purely professional, but my writing spans. This can lead to questions such as:

  • Will his writing affect his ability to do the job?
  • Can I trust him not to write about his work?
  • Is there any conflict of interest between what I want him to do and his stated views?
  • What do I think of his views?

I am not complaining, nor am I suggesting that (to this point at least) this has proved an insuperable difficulty. However, it is something I am always conscious of. Perhaps the single most important point that I make to people wishing to expand their web presence is the need to think about the management of that presence in advance.

The second conflict I want to talk about is the use of confidential information, linking back to my commenter.

It will be clear from my original post on Mr Assange that I have reservations about some current attitudes to the use and abuse of confidential information. There I said in part:

A substantial proportion of the workings of an Government depends upon the maintenance of a degree of confidentiality. I used to think that there was too much confidentiality. Now I am coming to think that the opposite holds true.

Our views are formed by our experiences. I have worked with confidential information all my life and not just in Government. My personal view is that more information should be in the public domain, that there is too much secrecy. However, I also feel that the wrong type of information is now going into the public domain and in the wrong ways. As we so often do, we actually manage to get the worst of both worlds, the need for confidentiality vs the need for transparency.

In my own writing, I have found a continuing tension between the need to preserve confidentiality and the things I write about.

We all mine our own experience. In my own case, this leads me in part to write about the need for public policy reform and for reform in approaches to management. I also use examples to illustrate my points. Pretty obviously, I am drawing from my own experiences. But when do I mention these, when not?

Sometimes, the temptation to be explicit is almost overwhelming, for over my career I have seen some pretty dumb things. I have also seen a lot of leaks. Yet there are practical, ethical and professional reasons for exercising discretion.

Let me give a simple practical example. Media monitoring techniques are now quite pervasive. In passing, I mentioned a NSW agency by name in my Express column. It was a completely innocuous reference. Some twenty-four hours later, a friend from that agency rang me to say that my column was included in that day's media report!

In managing all this in my own writing, I do one thing and have found one thing.

While I do use actual examples from my past in some cases, with more recent experiences I generalise, turning them from the specific into a general example.

Again using my Express column as an example, in one column I described the way in which decisions were made because I wanted my readers to understand how the processes involved could disadvantage.

In no way was this a whistle blowing piece. It was actually a piece of analytical reporting. However, I was very careful to generalise so that it was not agency specific, but rather described processes that I had seen across several agencies.

This brings me to the thing that I have found in writing. When you actually know how things are done or are likely to have been done, you don't actually need access to specific confidential information to work out what was likely to have happened.

Pink batts is an example. I didn't have any access to specific information, but the surmises I made proved to be pretty accurate. In similar vein, the main reason I knew so early that the Rudd Government's policy approach was going to find trouble came from my knowledge of the way systems worked or, in some cases, not. However, a little later in this case I also had a specific unmentioned example that provided a cross-check on my surmises.

So in all this, my commenter was in fact quite correct. To a degree, the way that I have defined my role as well as the constraints I write under, means that I do sometimes pull my punches a little, writing to educate rather than using explicit language to drive points home. Maybe I do this too much.

  Finishing on a related point, in On bloggers and journalist shield laws, Ken Parish discusses the position on draft legislation to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The Greens proposed an amendment that would extend the shield to bloggers and other citizen journalists.

Like Ken, I support the draft legislation in principle, but am opposed to its extensions beyond journalists. However, here we get into new and difficult territory.

Central to Ken's point is that bloggers are not subject to the same ethical and professional constraints as journalists. This line is actually becoming very blurred. Some journalists blog in ways that have nothing to do with their profession; some bloggers operate what are, in fact, on-line newspapers or journals; like conventional journalists, some bloggers are being killed for their reporting. 

We are coming into a new world whose boundaries are still unclear.

Assume, for example, that a colleague sends me confidential information that I consider to be of such importance that it deserves publication.

Could this happen? Well, yes, to some degree it already has. Sometimes the information is partial, but my experience allows me to fill in the bits.

Presently, I would disguise. Do I change my present rules and publish? Am I in a different position if I publish it via my Express column instead of my blog? 

The answer is I don't know. Working in un-charted waters, the only thing that I can try to do is to focus on the underlying principles as I see them.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting Jim, I understand your position and you put it very well, I also assume you are a freelance writer/ and would not have the 'back up' of the power of the press, so to type.
Good work and thanks.
( Oh, did you change murder for storm for a reason?,I was wondering about the correct usage when I used it then considered it would be OK.)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi anon and thanks No, use of storm was a simple transcription error on my part. And, yes, I am a freelance writer, although not a full time one.

Anonymous said...

Totally non-scientific, I accept - but I would note the present status of the SMH poll:

Poll: How do you feel about Julian Assange?

1. Benefit to democracy
2. Menace to democracy

Option 1: 91%
Total votes: 17555

As of 2.50 p.m Wednesday 8 December

Those pesky, ignorant Australian citizens.


Anonymous said...

Apologies Jim - there must be something shonky about that poll. Here it is, 2 hours later, now with 23,322 votes cast - and option 1 (the benefit to democracy one) still sits at 91%

You would think the SMH could at least get a poll of its readers right.