The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante. Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1
Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression. Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty. This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”
Previously, I asked How Much Code Should A Citizen Know? This led me (and I’m not sure how, possibly via a twitter tip-off) to this fascinating article by Annie Lowrey in Slate. She decided to learn how to code, and in doing so stumbled accross the story of _why, an avante-guarde Ruby programmer who had a huge cultural impact on the Ruby coding community, before mysteriously deleting all his code vanishing from the discussion forums. Its a good read.
What stood out for me was Lowrey’s respect for _why’s privacy. She does discover who he is and where he works, but chooses not to pester the guy when he makes it clear he wants to be left alone.
I’m sure there are many decent journalists who would have behaved in the same way, but as the #Leveson Inquiry unfolds and puts journalism in its worst light, such acts of respect draw the attention.
I was reminded of the actions of blogger LinkMachineGo, who discovered the identity of blogger Belle De Jour in 2003 and kept it secret:
I waited five years for somebody to hit that page (I’m patient). Two weeks ago I started getting a couple of search requests a day from an IP address at Associated Newspapers (who publish the Daily Mail) searching for “brooke magnanti” and realised that Belle’s pseudonymity might be coming to an end. I contacted Belle via Twitter and let her know what was happening. I didn’t expect to hear anything back.
And then early last weekend I received an email signed by Brooke that confirmed that she was outing herself in the Sunday Times because the Daily Mail had discovered her identity via an ex-boyfriend.
This in turn reminds us of outing of Girl With A One Track Mind in 2006, who was outed by the Sunday Times itself, and Nightjack, the police blogger who was outed by the The Times (illegally, so it turned out) in 2009. When the identities of these writers were revealed, their writing stopped and something important was lost from the writing ecosystem.
In all these cases, the print journalist’s desperation for a scoop (revelations that score quite low on Jay Rosen’s taxonomy of scoops) outweighed concerns about the value of the writing that was being produced by the blogger, a fellow person-of-letters. A writer-on-writer attack.
Its odd that the more mature approach to pseudonomity is being manifested at Slate, an online magazine that is only sixteen years old, and by bloggers who have been writing for only a few years. Meanwhile the harmful short-term thinking is happening at The Times, an institution established for a couple of centuries. It points to an arrogance within the mainstream media, a belief that the masthead confers a priority of one’s writing, opinion, and needs. Bloggers have long understood this culture. I wonder if Lord Leveson will challenge it?