Night Jack: the end of the anonymous blogger?


By Ian Reeves - Posted on 16 June 2009

The anonymous columnist has a long and distinguished tradition in newspaper and magazine history. Recent practitioners like the londonpaper's City Boy and the ghastly Julie Myerson (who thrice denied being the author of the Guardian's Living With Teenagers column before fessing up) were treading in the foosteps of far more illustrious journalists such as William Connor, who wrote the Daily Mirror's legendary Cassandra column for many years and ended up with a knighthood.

In a far smaller way I'm quietly proud of my own part in adding to the genre by helping bring that cantankerous old git Grey Cardigan - still, as yet, unidentified - to Press Gazette's pages.

Bloggers were quick to catch on that a cloak of anonymity could be a useful garment if you were dishing the dirt. Guido Fawkes managed to keep his identiy to himself until being memorably outed live on Newsnight by the Guardian's Michael White (at 2 mins 10 or so on the clip).

All of which brings us to the curious case of Night Jack, a working policeman who lifted the lid on the modern copper's life in a blog that last month won an Orwell Prize. His work was described by judges as taking readers "to the heart of what a policeman has to do". Alas, Night Jack is no more. The home page simply says that the author has deleted the blog's contents.

And it's all thanks to that great champion of free speech, Mr Justice Eady. He ruled in the High Court that the author of Night Jack could be named (and let's not lose the irony of this) in a national newspaper, The Times. In refusing an application for  an injunction to stop the newspaper naming the blogger, Justice Eady described blogging as "essentially a public rather than a private activity", noting that Night Jack had criticised government ministers in his writings.

I have no idea yet of The Times's motives for wanting to out him (I'll refrain for now from naming him here, although some sites have already done so), but it may be that The Thunderer is planning to report on an investigation into Night Jack by Lancashire Police.

In fact Justice Eady may have been right on this occasion - remember he's not forcing the author to reveal his own identiy, but saying he can't prevent some third party from doing so. I'm not convinced the right to anonymity in such cases is absolute if the author fails to keep their identity a secret. Nonetheless, in backing the newspaper's right to name him, the judge may have cast yet another of those "chills" over freedom of speech we keep hearing about in media law circles. Not all anonymous bloggers provide a valuable service, of course. But those that do - and Night Jack certainly did - must work doubly hard to make sure that nobody finds out who they are. Those that fail are now an endangered species.

UPDATE: This morning (Wednesday June 17) The Times has published a spread about its outing of Night Jack - Detective Constable Richard Horton. I must admit I'm still a little curious about the newspaper's motives. Its journalist Patrick Foster describes how he identified Night Jack by a "process of deduction and detective work", and explains that some details revealed by the blogger could be traced back to real prosecutions, including those involving sex offences against children. The newspaper's lawyer argued a case of "public interest in ... the general public law duty on police officers not to reveal information obtained in the course of a police investigation."

Public interest? Possibly. Yet the long-term effect of the Times's work is surely likely to serve as a deterrent to genuine whistleblowers with real insight into areas where light is seldom able to shine. It's hard to see the public interest in that.

There's also a piece by Richard Horton himself, which is certainly worth a read.

Mr Justice Eady might learn a bit  from our history of journalism module. He would become familiar with illustrious columnists such as the anonymous author of the Letters of Junius published in the Public Adverstiser between 1769 and 1772. These drew informed public attention towards the constitutional rights and liberties then available to British subjects and highlighted ways in which governement was infringing upon them. A lawyer ought to  appreciate the worth of anonymity in such circumstances. Anonymity is not just for fun, although some examples are tremendous fun (at the Scotsman we had Kirk Elder, a fictional senior citizen from Peebles, and Candy Barr, a model from the East Lothian Village of Drem). It has long served the valuable purpose of allowing brave insiders to reveal information without losing access to the sources of that information. So, Sir David, (as I believe you are known when you are not disguised beneath the anonymity of a wig),  the module is taught between September and December. You would be very welcome.  I'd be delighted to schedule a seminar or two on privacy, probity and the public interest to run in the same term.