17 November 2009 10:04 PM

Belle de Jour, Nightjack and anonymity on the blogosphere


When Brooke Magnanti outed herself as Belle de Jour* this weekend, she blogged her own justification:

"Anonymity had a will always have a reason to exist, for writers whose work is too damaging or too controversial to put their names on. But for me, it became important to acknowledge that aspect of my life and my personality to the world at large."

We have to take Brooke at her word that she actually planned to drop her anonymity even before the Daily Mail was on her trail (via an ex-boyfriend with "a big mouth"). Nevertheless, once she got wind of the paper's interest, her decision to go to India Knight at the Sunday Times was a masterpiece of spoilerdom (as the photo above just proves).

Yet around the time Nightjack was identified, I recall Belle writing a piece for Comment is Free, where she rightly defended the need for anonymity.

"Has outing an anonymous blogger ever saved a life, prevented a disaster, or markedly improved society on any measurable basis? Yeah, not so much."

In Nightjack's case, I still cannot believe that The Times decided to embark on a disgraceful and pointless campaign to out him. Having found some clues about him, the paper inexplicably decided that this was some great issue of media freedom. The Times' legal team then refused to back down rather than lose face.

The damage that the Times inflicted was far worse than just threatening one honest copper with the loss of his career. It undermined any policeman who wanted to speak off the record, the lifeblood of decent crime reporting. It also undermined any whistleblowing blogger, any public servant who wanted to tell it as it is from the frontline, without the filter of dreaded 'media and communications office". Maybe one day the Times will apologise, but knowing newspaper office politics as I do, I suspect it never will.

That's not to say that anonymity on the net is always a good thing. It's a privilege we shouldn't abuse. I still remember as a cub reporter how my newspaper would never, ever publish a letter without a name and address. But the blogosphere is now riddled with commenters hiding behind pseudonyms.

As Belle herself put it back in August:

"People are infinitely more civilised when they must put a name to their writing, when they have to stand behind their words."

Quite so.

And that brings me finally, to that issue of civility. Having written a blog myself for nearly two years now, I am increasingly tired of the spittle-flecked, green-ink tendency who are too cowardly to use their own names when they hurl abuse. Personally, I've not come under attack much (and I have a pretty thick skin), but I'm saddened to see the bile chucked at others.

How can we complain about anti-social behaviour and the culture of yobbery, when the very words we use online are so splenetic? Tim Montgomerie, himself a model of civility, rightly decried the rise of rudeness when he appeared on Any Questions last week. My kids see it in their footballing idols screaming at the ref, we see it in the strange phenonmeon of road-rage. Even Twitter, once a by-word for friendly interaction, is slowly being infected by crass rudeness.

I'm all for sarcasm, scepticism, fighting censorship and holding politicians to account. I find Malcolm Tucker's expletives as funny as the next man.

But all too often the blogosphere seems to be suffering from a form of Tourette's.

Can't we all be just a bit more polite to each other? And leave the anonymity to those who really need and value the protection it gives?

FOOTNOTE*: The best piece written about the whole Belle de Jour phenomenon was THIS from Rowan Pelling (former editor of the Erotic Review) in the Telegraph.


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The Church Mouse


The Church Mouse would like to point out that people seem to feel free to spit bile on blog comments under their own name, as well as under pseudonyms. Mouse has experienced far more people being genuinely nasty in their own names than under someone else's. It seems rather fashionable to attack anonymous bloggers at the moment. The issue is not the name under which the post / comment is published, but the fact that some people are unpleasant.

Mouse is anonymous for a number of reasons, but not because he is too cowardly to stand behind his words, or to use anonymity as an excuse to be nasty to people. For Mouse is it more about creating a blog with its own identity, which has an air of mystique about it.

Mouse is standing up for honest, decent, polite anonymous bloggers, and suggests people turn their attacks not on whether people write under their own name or not, but on people who say nasty things to people.


I have some sympathy, however some journalists are very guilty of incivility. Witness the constant homophobic references to Peter Mandelson as Mandy, for example. Of course, most of the worst offenders (Richard Littlejohn, Quentin Letts etc.) are also amongst the most likely to have comments censored.

One of the most influential politics blogs features a cartoon of an exaggeratedly fat John Prescott soiling himself. How is this acceptable in any way? In instances like this the blogger brings it upon themself.

I do feel sorry for Nick Robinson whose (to my mind impartial) blog regularly attracts a stream of abuse.

Allowing comment on newspaper articles is probably the most important media revolution in the Noughties, but the problems of astroturfing, sockpuppeting and abuse must be addressed. The journalists must lead by example, but are certainly not the only party to blame.

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