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United Kingdom: Court decides against a blogger's rights to anonymity

A new legal precedent has been set for UK bloggers.

Last week, in the England and Wales High Court, Mr Justice Eady ruled that a police officer who previously wrote about his working life on his NightJack blog, did not have the right to remain anonymous.

The claimant – now known to be Detective Constable Richard Horton – had unsuccessfully attempted to get an injunction against The Times newspaper (UK) to stop it naming him. Following the court's ruling Horton has now been issued with a written warning by his police force, the Lancashire Constabulary.

A victory for freedom of expression (The Times’)… or a severe restriction for freedom of expression (anonymous bloggers)? Popular opinion is divided, though a blog search would indicate that blogger opinion veers towards the latter.

NightJack, the judge said, did not “qualify as information in respect of which the Claimant has a reasonable expectation of privacy – essentially because blogging is a public activity”. Eady, who is well-known in the UK for his privacy-protecting rulings, stated:

“Furthermore, even if I were wrong about this, I consider that any such right of privacy on the Claimant's part would be likely to be outweighed at trial by a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer has been making these communications.”

And the implication for bloggers? “Those who wish to hold forth to the public by this means often take steps to disguise their authorship, but it is in my judgment a significantly further step to argue, if others are able to deduce their identity, that they should be restrained by law from revealing it.”

It's hard to find anyone in the UK (or international) blogosphere overwhelmingly in support of The Times’ ruling; and The Times’ own stories about their battle received severe criticism from commenters, even if, as Malcolm Coles suggests, some of the negative comments are a little tricky to find…

Three things to bear in mind for background:

  • NightJack had had undergone the scrutiny of a judging panel in order to win the prestigious Orwell Prize for blogging. The prize's director, Jean Seaton, argues why she believes Eady's ruling to be wrong, here, on the Guardian Organ Grinder blog.
  • Horton, who ended his postings after being shortlisted for the award, donated his prize to the Police Dependants’ Trust.
  • One of The Times’ main arguments for outing him was its claims that ‘he was also using the blog to disclose detailed information about cases he had investigated, which could be traced back to real-life prosecutions.’

The bloggers and commenters have reacted with force, many personally attacking Patrick Foster, the journalist at the centre of what Eady called the ‘deduction and detective’ process. I've previously rounded up a good mix of links on the Journalism.co.uk Editors’ Blog and my own blog which tell the story, but here are a selection of the best blog posts, which draw out interesting nuances. Opinions include:

  • Those who defend their right to anonymity as a blogging police officer. Eg. PC Bloggs.
  • Others who work in the public sector and write about their life and work. Eg. Tom Reynolds, an ambulance driver with a book deal.
  • Those who think NightJack was a little naive in his attempt to remain anonymous: Eg. Letter from a Tory
  • Those with other criticisms against The Times’ approach to the case. Eg. Hopi Sen, once an anonymous blogger.

This is just a summary of a complicated debate. Perhaps the court's decision has surprised onlookers so much because it happened in the UK. We're not living in a repressive autocracy with threatening media laws. While we have stringent libel laws, our freedom of expression extends far more widely than it does for many societies. Perhaps more than it does for most nations in the world – not least because the English language is understood by so many. Yet an award-winning blogger, whose voice, it could be argued, aided the democratic process (see Seaton's article), was not able to stay nameless.

To what extent it affects UK bloggers’ future privacy and right to anonymity remains to be seen. I shall report back. In the meantime, all those who are blogging anonymously might do well to take a look at Global Voices Advocacy's guidelines … then they might stand a chance of keeping it that way. Perhaps taking up jiu-jitsu in a Lancashire town, and then writing about it, was a reckless decision on Horton's part.

Please do add any other good links below.

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