The arrogance journalists have lately displayed about the culture of online political discussion may be forgivable; their ignorance about their own profession and the history of publishing isn’t. In what Possum has aptly called the “faux debate” about the outing of a pseudonymous blogger, there’s been little acknowledgement of the long-standing and continuing use of anonymous and pseudonymous authors in major newspapers. Let alone the fact that anonymity and pseudonymity have been part of the fabric of a democratising public culture for more than 500 years. Bad faith, denial, obtuseness – take your pick. The fact is that leading journalists appear to have no understanding of the history of their own profession, or their business, publishing.
So, a few home truths from the history of Australian publishing. For a start, The Australian has always run, and continues to run anonymous and pseudonymous material.
The Australian ran two pseudonymous columns for several years under a succession of authors. Dennis Cryle describes the situation in his history of the paper, Murdoch’s Flagship:
The Australian’s first issue featured on page three a regular “Peter Brennan” column, devoted to “the world’s lighter side” and incorporating pin-up pictures for which the Murdoch tabloids would become renowned.
The “Peter Brennan” column would in turn spawn a long-running successor, “Martin Collins”, written by Arnold Earnshaw among others, as part of a determined bid to offset Newton’s editorial preoccupatiuon with finance…
[Martin Collins and the women’s page both] enjoyed remarkable longevity on the paper, although their tone would vary under a succession of columnists that included Gerladine Pascall, Judy Boyrel and Jane Fraser.
“Peter Brennan” and “Martin Collins” weren’t people, of course. They were authorial names, nevertheless, which marked a way of writing, a genre, a regular space for certain topics. Like all authorial names, they helped form expectations in the minds of readers as to what they would weekly encounter under the names. The names fulfilled an “author function”, in terms of literary theory.
Apart from these gossipy columns, the national newspaper has seen fit to use anonymity as a political weapon. It deliberately employed it in attacking and attempting to bring down a Labor government. No, I’m not talking about last year. This was back in 1975, and came to light in the course of the newspaper’s industrial confrontation with its journalists, who appear, once upon a time, to have been made of sterner stuff.
Of the Australian’s coverage of the 1975 constitutional crisis, by comparison with the Age and the (then non-Murdoch) Melbourne Herald and Sun, it was found that the paper had given
greater space to non-bylined news than the other three papers, the bulk of it opposed to the ALP. This category of story, much of it published under generic terms like ”our political staff“, was characteristic of the Rothwell period and occupied four times the space allocated to bylined election stories in the Australian. The figure was critical to staff allegations that the backbench was slanting news as well as editorial, since the preponderant category of non-bylined news was supposed to be objective reportage.
Of course, the guy who oversaw this still owns the company whose journalists are now arguing that pseudonymous blog authors are taking liberties.
Ancient history? Well, there are still pseudonymous authors in Australian newspapers, and in the Australian. Jack the Insider is one. The long-running ”The Prince“ column in the Australian Financial Review is another. They’re part of a tradition that encompasses practically the entire history of publishing – which is another way of talking about the entire history of the democratisation of public speech.
Anonymity and pseudonymity have been part of this from the beginning, and underpinned some of the greatest literary achievements in the history of Western culture. That’s because (but not only because) pseudonyms and anonymity allow people to speak freely. You can express controversial opinions about powerful people, or say things that your professional position, your place in the power structure, your gender, your relgious affiliation etc., etc., etc., might otherwise make difficult.
Of course, if you’re a professional in a mass media organisation, all that is licensed by the job. But in that case, historically and contextually speaking, you are the aberration, not the norm. Unless you’re determined to keep those freedoms for yourself, why would you deliberately do things that restricted others’ enjoyment of them?
(Even journalists aren’t always allowed to speak freely. If you want to know why people might use a pseudonym, today’s efforts from Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt might offer a clue. There’s one person whose public speech has been well and truly chilled.)
In the nineteenth century, it was journalists themselves who were making arguments that their anonymity should be preserved. (Back then, at least a few of them seemed to be more concerned with free speech than their own egos.) There’s a wonderful pamphlet called ”Anonymous Journalism“ you can download from Google books which indicates the terms of the controversy. The author here is arguing that parliamentary reporters should be named, but is forced to rebut good arguments coming from the other direction. He was emboldened by the fact that parliaments were passing laws to restrict the freedom of the press in precisely those ways in continental Europe. He wanted the same thing to happen in Britain. Luckily, he didn’t succeed. But their current attitudes to anonymity and pseudonymity show that journos are losing the war of memory against forgetting in relation to their own job.
It wasn’t just straight news journalism where anonymity was deployed. The Times Literary Supplement only allowed anonymous contributions as a rule until very late in the Twentieth Century. Among other reasons, because it allowed personally reticent authors to offer their expertise in reviews. Also, because of the belief it led to higher-quality contributions (that is, people were less inclined to ”show off“ among other things. Attention-seeking under a byline is, of course, an ongoing problem.)
If you really want an insight into anonymity and pseudonymity and its prevalence, there’s a good read to be had in Robert Griffin’s paper ”Anonymity and Authorship. (Gimme a yell if you want it and don’t have access to a Uni library.) Scholarship like this (a) makes the elementary distinction between anonymity and pseudonymity, which seems (worryingly) to elude many who we rely on to report on our national affairs; and (b) drives home a sense of the absolute normalcy of anonymity until well into the nineteenth century, and it’s wide acceptance well beyond that period. The vast majority of published authors wrote under pseudonyms or anonymously. That’s precisely because, for the most part, they weren’t professionals. It was really (a) copyright (b) the economics and ideology of professionalisation and (c) specific legal protections of the right of free speech that caused some (not all) authors and reporters to use their own names. The arguments about “accountability” are the cart that follows these horses. He writes:
one of the dominant functions of anonymity over the centuries has been protection. By not disallowing authorial anonymity, with the exception of that brief period in the mid-seventeenth century already mentioned, society recognized that people had a right to speak their minds without fear of retaliation, or in circumstances that made retaliation difficult… it appears that strict anonymity begins to wane more and more rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, while pseudonymity, because it is that form of anonymity that employs a name, continues to offer possibilities.
Griffin makes the point that “nearly every author” in the history of English literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrote anonymously at some point. Why?
The motivations for publishing anonymously have varied widely with circumstances, but they have included an aristocratic or a gendered reticence, religious self-effacement, anxiety over public exposure, fear of prosecution, hope of an unprejudiced reception, and the desire to deceive. This list is not exhaustive, merely representative in a very general way. The wish to keep one’s identity in the dark could extend so far as to drive authors to communicate with their publishers through an intermediary or under a pseudonym, as in the cases of Swift, Burney, Austen, and George Eliot.
The specific reason Sir Walter Scott gave for not signing Waverley are interesting in this connection:
Authors also chose anonymity if they felt that their authorial persona conflicted with their daily one. Scott signed his poetry, but he did not sign Waverley, or so he wrote in a letter, because he felt the dignity of an officer of the court in Edinburgh would be compromised if he were publicly known to be an author of popular fiction: “In truth I am not sure it would be considered quite decorous for me as a Clerk of Session to write novels[.] Judges being monks clerks are a sort of lay-brethren from whom some solemnity of walk & conduct may be expected.”… Even today, not all writers of thrillers, romances, and detective fiction sign their legal names and for similar reasons. Signing or not signing may depend on genre.
Professional writers have always been a very small subsection of those who write. Other people have other lives to get on with. At least Walter Scott made money from what he did. Grog didn’t. The suggestions that he could get such a job if he wanted to are disingenuous and miss the point. The journalist who named him did so because he could, or perhaps because because like many in his profession, he seems exceptionally sensitive to well-aimed criticism. The public interest arguments are utterly spurious. Grog’s name makes no difference to anyone except his employer.
Don’t let anyone tell you that anonymity or pseudonymity is an aberration, and that personally named authors are the norm. In the period of “high modernist” journalism, a lot of bylined stuff was written in newspapers, and the bylines have shot up like mushrooms in the current era. But there are good reasons to think that it’s the relatively brief mass media era which has been exceptional in this respect.
We need to acknowledge the persistence of motivations for anonymity and pseudonymity. Professional writers want to be named, nonprofessionals often don’t. That can be for a variety of reasons, and it doesn’t mean an author is not accountable for what they write.
Anonymity and pseudonymity are not a right, but nor is writing under your own name an obligation. If you are writing pseudonymously or anonymously, you’re part of a history that started long before the current model of bylined journalism did, and certainly before the current occupants of the Canberra Press Gallery got Twitter accounts. What you are doing is not wrong. Any suggestion that it is should be understood for what it is – an attempt to restrict public speech.
In the long view, the capacity to write anonymously or pseudonymously has been a net bonus for our culture, and our democracy. If you don’t think so, it’s probably because you have hurt feelings.
Cryle, D., 2008. Murdoch’s flagship : twenty-five years of the Australian newspaper, Carlton, Vic. :: Melbourne University Publishing. [Accessed October 1, 2010].
Griffin, R.J.(.J., 1999. “Anonymity and Authorship.” New Literary History, 30(4), 877-895.
Ridgway, J., 1855. Anonymous journalism. Pamphlet. Accessed electronically 3 October 2009, Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=qzdielD9JV4C