Saturday, October 16, 2010

Grog rations

After reading some of Grog’s Gamut’s first posts since The Australian journalist James Massola revealed his name, I was struck by the quality of the personal detail which informed his arguments. While it was always there to some degree, it seemed Grog suddenly had more freedom to back up opinions with detailed events from his life. As a result, I tweeted last night “Reading @grogsgamut's blog with added personal experiences makes me think @jamesmassola may have actually done us all a favour.”

Grog, who has also returned to twitter, replied to me promptly: “@derekbarry they were always there - you just didn't know my name.”

I didn’t dispute either of these points. But given the way his story was "always there" I was far from surprised the pseudonymous blogger was outed when it happened. Grog’s recent rise to prominence allied to the hints about his life in his work, made me sure sooner or later his identity would be revealed. He also tempted fate by trusting Massola not to reveal something he told him months ago. And surely he knew the writing was on the wall when he appeared at Canberra Media140 in September as embedded blogger “Greg”.

I was out of the country at the time so I missed that conference and I also missed much of the heat of the Twitter firestorm generated by “#groggate”. While it was good to see social media flex its muscles against the arrogance of older players, I thought it was amusing how enthusiastically they used the journalism cliché of “-gate”.

Yet I was still angry when I heard the Australian had outed him for no apparent reason. I foresaw the likely consequences of the article - his employers would force him to cease blogging and Australia would lose a useful critical voice. Though I’d never heard of the name of “Greg Jericho”, I’ve known about the blogger called “Grog’s Gamut” for some time. His bio was of a Canberra public servant who admitted he looked nothing like his Ralph Fiennes icon. Yet this unknown part-time writer was fast becoming one of the sharpest political writers in Australia. He excelled himself in his daily coverage of the 2010 election coverage. His 31 July tour de force “bring the journalists home” article attacking poor journalistic practices caused an ABC review and put him in the wider news. But it was the Murdoch empire that was Grog’s real target and it was only a matter of time before they would launch a counterattack.

Grog said he told Massola his name ten months ago, but it wasn’t until 27 September that he was “unmasked”. Massola's article and that of his boss Geoff Elliot who defended him became notorious in the Twittersphere and a matter of much derision. While some of the criticism was over the top, neither journalist can have much complaint. They failed the basic test of newsworthiness, completely botching the justification for the outing, because there was none.

Massola’s first sentence, which should be the most important, revealed nothing new. “The anonymous blogger who prompted Mark Scott to redirect the ABC's federal election coverage is a Canberra public servant,” he wrote. It served only as a false rationale for the name in the second sentence: “Greg Jericho, a public servant who spends his days working in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts.” Massola passed the blame to twitter speculation for the revelation and then attempted to justify it by saying Grog’s bias might impact the “impartial and professional” way the APS is run.

The unmasking did not sit well with the Twitterati (not least with Grog himself). They blasted Massola for his abuse of privilege, false emphasis, lack of principles and lack of care of the consequences of his actions. Massola had violated a social norm and The Australian's Media section editor Geoff Elliott was forced to come out and defend him. Elliot only succeeded in making matters worse with his pompous tone. “If you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public's right to know who you are,” he said. “It is the media's duty to report it.”

Elliot never made it clear why the public had such a right nor why it was his job to inform the public about that right, particularly when that paper has a long history of pseudonymous publication. It is not difficult to read between these few terse lines of an experienced news curator to see News Ltd’s purely political line at work aimed at destabilising a potentially dangerous enemy in a manner that was borderline unethical.

Fortunately the Australian Public Service proved Elliot and me both wrong. After a couple of weeks of silence, Grog was back online this week. He may not “deserve anonymity” that Elliot summarily stripped him of but he certainly deserved to have a voice. His employers took into account he steered well clear of his own policy area in his writing. They took the sensible position no one of reasonable mind could confuse Grog’s views with those of his employers.

Reading the newest Grog/Greg musings shows he remains fiercely partisan. His opinions haven’t changed but I detected a greater willingness to use life experiences as collateral because now he could do so without fear of consequence. Though Grog has denied this, it was this new explanatory power I sensed which made me think Massola had, quite unintentionally, done us all a favour.

1 comment:

Pip said...

I agree WD. I'm just glad that Grog is back, and to any lurking News Ltd. trolls, I never buy your lousy papers and I don't read the online stuff either.
It's just one customer less but it makes me feel a whole lot better for not wasting my time.
After the disgraceful smear campaign they conducted against Premier Mike Rann, [still continuing] why would anyone bother.