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Aussie bloggers forced to balance anonymity with influence

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The outing of a political blogger in Australia once again brings the issue of online anonymity into the spotlight. Harsh words have also been directed at the Murdoch-owned News Ltd group, with suggestions that at the very least it is being inconsistent in its stance on blogging.

The immediate cause of all the fuss is the revelation by James Massola of The Australian that the author of much-read and occasionally controversial political blog Grog’s Gamut is in fact "Greg Jericho, a public servant who spends his days working in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts".

This outing follows the revelation by Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), in a recent speech to the Melbourne writers festival speech that he had raised Jericho's criticism at a meeting of the ABC executive, because "dynamic political news was crowding out proper reporting of policy initiatives in some news bulletins".

He added: "We adjusted our strategy as we listened to critics, our audiences - and critiqued our own coverage."

In other words, Grog’s Gamut is making waves, so its author no longer merits the courtesy of being allowed to remain outside the media spotlight. Opinion appears to be evenly divided on the issue. On the one hand, Grog-outer Massola justifies his action by claiming that Grog’s growing influence makes him an actor in public debate as opposed to mere commenter, so the public should be able to know who he is in order to judge for themselves. Additional justification is claimed on the grounds that, as a public servant, there may be some conflict of interest in Grog taking such an active role in public debate.

This is echoed by The Australian’s media editor Geoff Elliott, who also writes: "If you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public's right to know who you are. It is the media's duty to report it."

However, this view is in sharp contrast with that expressed by The Advertiser, a sister paper to The Australian in the News Ltd group. Prior to the last State election in South Australia, legislation was passed requiring people commenting online to provide their real name and post code. An outcry followed, leading to the law never being enforced – and later being repealed.

Along the way, The Advertiser's editor Melvin Mansell said: "Clearly this is censorship being implemented by a government facing an election."

Back in Australia this week, Grog appears mostly nonplussed by the storm raging around him. In a blogged response to his outing, which refers proudly to his now achieving in the region of 1,000 hits a day, he denies any conflict of interest – but admits, with some apparent regret, that he may now have to stop blogging.

In Australia, the debate rages on. Somewhere behind the froth can be heard echoes of a similar debate that has been going on in Europe in respect of the right to anonymity of the mega-bloggers. Most recently, the issue has surfaced in the UK in respect of Guido Fawkes blog and its role in pushing the issue of whether politicians’ privacy was breached wholesale by the press through the use of unauthorised phone taps. ®

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