Hanneke du Toit

15 minutes of anonymity

As I sat down to register this blog, I yet again had to go through the rigmarole of picking user names, log-in names, nicknames and passwords. For the sake of simplicity I decided to stick to my good ol’ real name which I can look up in my passport in the unlikely event of ever forgetting it. I blogged under a pseudonym once before; to my mind for protecting the familia from the details of a few wild week-ends, but in the end it probably more accurately protected me from myself and my amateurish self-publishing. There is a lot to be said for the safety afforded by anonymity, but as the British blogging community realised last week, anonymity has suddenly become something of the past.

In what was termed a landmark decision, the British high court decided not to protect the anonymity of Richard Horton, author of the blog Nightjack. Horton was recently  awarded the prestigious Orwell prize for his behind-the-scenes blogging on police investigations in  Lancashire. A 45 year old detective constable, Horton started Nightjack in February 2008, not knowing how much attention his writing would draw.

I stumbled across the blog in March when he was shortlisted for the prize, and had already stopped adding new posts. His nightly reports on investigations read like A Touch of Frost with a side serving of Irvine Welch:  edgy, eloquent, caustic, real. He unapologetically aired his strong views on social and political issues, but with surprising craft and sophitication. The blog has since been taken down and a only few snippits remain on the web. A typical post would describe a case of random street violence:

“Mike slurs ‘I’m not from here’ as his periphery starts closing in. He’s thinking that it must be mistaken identity. It is Lee’s second kick that sparks Mike out, face down.”

Advice on dealing with officers of the law?

“If the Police arrive to lock you up, say nothing. You are a decent person and you may think that reasoning with the Police will help. Wrong.” … “All you are doing by trying to explain is digging yourself further in. We call that stuff a significant statement and we love it.”

Soon after starting out, his readership hit 1500 visitors per day, reaching up to 60 000 a week at its most popular, his frank and uncompromising style clearly striking a chord. In February he was long-listed for the Orwell prize and when finally awarded it in April,  he did not attend to protect his anonymity, and his dayjob. His identity remained undisclosed in the media until The Times decided it was in the public interest to know the real Nightjack. It ended in court when Horton tried to prevent the Times from revealing his identity, but failed, and subsequently removed the blog from the web entirely.

And here’s the uncomfortable thing. The ruling stated that Horton had no “reasonable expectation” to anonymity because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”. The Times stated their case here, and elicited in excess of 130 fuming responses, from bloggers and non-bloggers alike.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding by people who use the web that they’ve got an entitlement to be anonymous. This makes clear they don’t.” Jaron Lewis, a lawyer, said here to FT.

Bloggers are concerned. “Anonymity is one of the strengths of the internet, not a weakness.” says Tom Reynolds who blogs about his job in the London Ambulance service. He fears people might stop posting interesting, thought-provoking blogs for fear of being prosecuted for writing from inside the public service sector or large corporations. What will remain is PR fluff.

In the Telegraph, Shane Richmond argues that Nightjack “shed light on his work and brought the public a view of policing that could only be done anonymously.”. He maintains newspapers should be protecting people like him.

As for Horton? According to Lancashire Constabulary he has been spoken to and has been issued with a written warning. Certainly does not sound too serious. May he revel in his publishing deals, TV contracts and film rights.

Should you be worried, here are 7 ways to blog anonymously. The best bit of advice is to simply try not to win big literary awards.

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Filed under: Writing Online, , , , , ,

9 Responses

  1. Hannes Loubser says:

    Hey Babe. Lekker stukkie werk, en baie insightful. Bly jy is weer aan die skryf. Dit blyk my die muse is terug.

    • hannekedutoit says:

      Dankie! Ek weet nie of mens hierdie aan ‘n muse kan verbind nie, maar dis ten minste weer swart op wit.

  2. KnockNevis says:

    Great post. Lanklaas wat ek ‘n post kon klaarlees.

  3. Tom says:

    Hey Chickhook

    what a nice idea to share your thought in a blog.
    I am from now on an assiduous readear !

    I might give you some thoughts about that from a French/German perspective also.. hehehe might be interesting…
    But you have to not laugh at my spelling/grammatik mistakes ! OK ?

    TOM

    • hannekedutoit says:

      Bonsoir Anout! Yea, sure, bring on the French opinions, I can handle them! Good to hear from you 😉

  4. LnddMiles says:

    Pretty cool post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really liked reading your blog posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you post again soon!

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