A sad day for investigative journalism

Why no blogging, you ask? Ah, citizens, I am an old, weary Head of State and the Republic grows dilapidated [waves jewelled hand feebly].

It is not just that more mundane things are preoccupying me, although they are. I have kept the Republic open for business through far more tumultuous periods than this (e.g. the great British Gas Crisis of 2007, the protracted Relocation Question of 2003-ongoing and numerous beer shortages). And it is not just my nagging half-sense, a notion-ette if you will, that the Lib Dem blogosphere has slipped a notch or two towards unpleasantness in recent weeks.

It is this: that there comes a time when the Sparrow of Opinion, having flown into the Great Hall of Blogging through the Window of Inspiration, must fly out again into the Night of Doing Something Else, as the Venerable Bede nearly said. I have said all that needs to be said, my best tales are all told that can be told here. Oh! better to close the gates on the Republic now before they rust where they stand. For see! how the vines creep over the columns and the beetles scuttle unashamed in the cracks of the marble floors, note how the crumpled leaves drift against the wainscot, and the skeletons of small hapless mammals clog up the-

Wait. What in the name of my fast petrifying arse is this?

Richard Horton had obtained a temporary injunction against the Times after a reporter discovered he was the officer behind the NightJack blog, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its behind-the-scenes commentary on policing.

Horton, a detective constable with the Lancashire constabulary, prevented the Times from revealing his identity after arguing the paper would be putting him at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing confidential information about prosecutions within the force.

However, in a landmark judgment Mr Justice Eady overturned the injunction, stating that Horton, whose blog at one time had around 500,000 readers a week, had “no reasonable expectation of privacy“.

“I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police disciplinary regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors,” Eady added.

Five hours after reading that for the first time, I am still open-mouthed at the horror of it. Not Orwell himself could have dreamt of such a shitty betrayal of human decency, on the part of both judge and journalist.

Let’s remind ourselves of what Nightjack is really all about (or was, before his exposed blog got taken down). Imagine a grey, faceless, doorless monolith, labelled “public services” (not too difficult, is it). Now look back down the years and years in which we, the hapless public whose services they allegedly were, had only the faintest, scariest clues about what was really going on in there.

Occasionally we would find ourselves rushed inside those grey walls on trolleys, or cuffed and bound in the back of vans, forced to wait in corridors and in queues and on lists for answers and explanations and operations that sometimes  just never came, clutching pieces of paper we could not hope to understand. Whenever we go into that place, whether we’re ill, imprisoned, victimised or under 16, we are at our most vulnerable and least observant. For years, none of us really knew how the system worked. And, let’s be brutally honest about this, some people have died as a result of that.

Oh, we told each other cautionary tales about the queues and the automated voices and the inefficiencies and the grinding injustices. And occasionally, the more intelligent journalists with more old-school editors would break into the monolith for a while and hang about taking down notes which they would then test against the publicly available figures. But that sort of journalism takes time and resources for what may, ultimately, be a less than thrilling headline. It was rare that the doors of the monolith were prised open. We didn’t really know, as a society, what was going on in there.

Then the internet came. Suddenly the doors in the monolith started opening – from the inside. Out it all poured, and still does, reams and reams of information, observation and the driest horror stories you’ll ever read from doctors, nurses, policemen, magistrates, carers, teachers, cleaners. The monolith was revealed to be not a faceless structure at all but a structure with a million faces, a swarming mound of people who were – shock horreur – just like us. They are us, and we are them. And the blogosphere allowed us all to make that connection with each other, and grope towards an understanding of how our public services have got to where they are. What is the monolith for? What are its merits and evils? Can we change it? Is it really hopeless? On a good day, at least, Nightjack thought it wasn’t hopeless.

We, The People, we were getting somewhere. And all this could be achieved, via the anonymity of cyberspace, without anyone risking their jobs, or the censure of their colleagues.

And now a newspaper has ruined the career of one of them. Because they want a good headline, and probably because they’re jealous of his audience reach and of the unstoppable advance of new media in general. They have ruined. His. Career. And this is not a man highly placed in public service, mark you. Not a man caught out in any wrongdoing. Just a man who wrote down what he thought.

The  Times piece itself (like Mr Dale, I aren’t linking) is positively scary:

In April Mr Horton was awarded the Orwell Prize for political writing, but the judges were not aware that he was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions.

Excuse me? What kind of doublethink does a human mind have to be capable of to seek to safeguard the identity of victims and witnesses in criminal prosecution cases by revealing the name of the policeman who worked on them?

The article goes on to piously recite Nightjack’s crimes as follows. In fact the whole article is in the “Crime” section – the “Thought” is silent, presumably:

His blog, which gave a behind-the-scenes insight into frontline policing, included strong views on social and political issues, including matters of “public controversy,” the judge said.

The officer also criticised and ridiculed “a number of senior politicians” and advised members of the public under police investigation to “complain about every officer . . . show no respect to the legal system or anybody working in it.”

Criticised and ridiculed senior politicians? How very dare he! And how dare he talk about controversial public matters, he a mere public servant!

The Times have put a picture of him alongside their article too. Just to show they can hack Facebook like anybody else.

When Nightjack won the Orwell Prize we all chuckled about how much Orwell would have appreciated having a secret policeman win a prize with his name on it. The final twist in the tale is sinister beyond a liberal’s wildest nightmares.


  1. totally, totally agreed. There was no public interest defence whatsoever, they\’re just jealous and wanted to stamp on him.

    Without wanting to get all tinfoil helmet about it, I fear we are going to see a significant attempt over the next few years by Murdoch et al to grab back what they have lost to t\’internet. Paid-for content and micro-charging is just the start.

    Lesson to others, though: if you want to have an anonymous blog, set it up through a fake email address and only post from internet cafés or through anonymous proxy servers.

    Jack, doubt you\’re reading, but since you were last time, power to your arm old chap.

  2. A couple of quotes that may cast a bit of light on this. The first from Murdoch himself on May 7 this year from The Guardian:

    Rupert ­Murdoch expects to start charging for access to News Corporation\’s newspaper websites within a year as he strives to fix a ­\”malfunctioning\” business model.

    Encouraged by booming online subscription revenues at the Wall Street Journal, the billionaire media mogul last night said that papers were going through an \”epochal\” debate over whether to charge. \”That it is possible to charge for content on the web is obvious from the Wall Street Journal\’s experience,\” he said.

    Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World, he replied: \”We\’re absolutely looking at that.\” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin \”within the next 12 months‚\” adding: \”The current days of the internet will soon be over.\”

    More here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/may/07/rupert-murdoch-charging-websites

    The second is from the piece itself:

    \”He began the blog in February 2008. Critical acclaim followed, with a prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing, in April this year. At that stage he stopped, swapping virtual pages for their paper counterparts after using the attention to land the services of a top book agent.\”

    How shocking for Times journalist Patrick Foster that some upstart blogger should be getting himself a top agent. Beating a path to your door, are they, Mr Foster?

    What a singularly unattractive paragraph that is.

  3. One thing I noticed in your article “at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing…”

    It seems like the man in question used his anonimity as a cloak to do things which he feared would not be approved. Surely, there are reasons for having such rules in place.

    This reminds me of Watergate where the executive tried to use privilege to protect themselves from embarrassment.

    What would you feel about someone going undercover in the Lib Dems and revealing secrets about Nick Clegg? Would you switch sides and say it is outrageous to infiltrate the Lib Dems and call for the person to be outed?

    I wonder whether you would take a more partisan view in that case.

  4. The thing about the Liberal is that we don’t have that many secrets. We have some stuff that we don’t shout about, but you wouldn’t need to go undercover to find it, just look at what’s already out there.

    There are already a number of anonymised Lib Dem bloggers who are critical of some of the ways the party works; generally we embrace them. In fact, I will be amazed if one of them (Mr Quist) doesn’t win Lib Dem Blogger of the year this year.

  5. Jennie, the Lib Dems have had their fair share of scandals. Remember Mark Oaten.

    So, I do not know if a Liberal would have few secrets as you assume.

    I suspect people would get very annoyed if a Lib Dem was embarrassed and the polls slipped as a result but when it is the police who are expoused by a blog, that is fair game.

    It would seem like a partisan approach

  6. Well, it would if that was the approach that anyone was advocating, but nobody is.

    In the case you cite (Mark Oaten) I remember some people being annoyed with MARK, and a few people saying “why is anyone bothered about this anyway”, but nobody having a go at the whistleblower…

  7. Alix said in the article “Because they want a good headline, and probably because they’re jealous of his audience reach”

    This sounds to me like attacking the messenger. Attacking the message seems to be insufficient for Alix. She has to attribute the article to jealousy.

    Do you think it is a good idea to attribute things to jealousy? Do you advocate that?

  8. Alix,

    Interesting article!

    I would still like to tickle your fancy! 🙂 The LD are going to do nothing other than defeat! I can see you are tickerlish! Let me tickle your fancy and you will never vote LD again! 🙂

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