“Chicken-hearted, craven, faceless cowards.” (I think she’s talking about me.)

May 1, 2009 at 8:44 pm (Bloggers, Media) (, , , , , )

I should really be blogging about swine flu, the conspiracy theories, the daft claims to have remedies for the snoutbreak (Elderberry and vitamin C? Homeopathic mp3 files? I can hardly believe I can read advice like this), or perhaps the silly puns involved (aporkalypse, the remedies produced by Pig Pharma, parmageddon etc…) but this article by Carol Midgley caught my eye (via the HolfordWatch miniblog) so I’m writing about anonymous bloggers instead. In bemoaning the vitriolic nature of the nastier end of internet-based discussion, she inadvertently wrote something quite hilarious:

You’ll no doubt think this a bit rich coming from a journalist who spouts opinions for money. Well, yes, but at least we put our names to what we write. Our unlovely photographs sit atop the page, we have to qualify statements, check facts, our lawyers monitor what we write and beat us with a wet slipper if we mess up.

Really? I am perfectly willing to accept that newspaper lawyers are likely to make quite a considerable fuss over potentially libellous articles (although, given the number of lawsuits that some newspapers have lost, I’m not convinced that lawyers are doing this consistently – or that their advice is heeded), and I have no idea to what extent journalist qualify statements. But I do not accept that journalists have to check facts. If they had to do these things then they would be doing them. The fact that they clearly are not checking facts would suggest that this activity is not obligatory. As Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, only 12 per cent of key factual statements in mainstream British newspapers show signs of being thoroughly checked. I don’t think this figure backs up Carol Midgley’s claim that journalists have to fact-check. The implication that journalists are more accurate than bloggers because they fact-check will surely make any reader of www.badscienceblogs.net laugh heartily. (Perhaps especially those who have read this blog post.)

The other point I am going to address is that of anonymity. Midgley complains that anonymous bloggers are “chicken-hearted, craven, faceless cowards” – but is willing to make an exception for “a blogger writing about certain government dictatorships”. That’s a fairly extreme example. There are many reasons for people to blog anonymously. The blog “Education Watch” lists some of those reasons here in a piece about Marianne Mikko. Not wishing to have details of one’s identity available to every angry weirdo on the internet is one reason to blog anonymously. Making use of anonymity to blow the whistle on malpractice and corruption is another. Then there’s avoiding giving the impression that you speak for your employer. Or you may simply wish to avoid upsetting or annoying friends, family, or your employer to give but three examples. (Incidentally, the blog post on Education Watch also points out that it is what is said that is important, not who says it – playing the ball not the man, so to speak.) I agree with Midgley when she writes to suggest that “Next time you’re about to write something malicious on a website, ask yourself a question. Would you have the balls to say it to your target’s face?” I disagree with her conclusion that if you would have the balls to say it “then [you should] put your name to it. If not, hold your chicken-hearted tongue and make a cup of tea instead.”


Flat Earth News website.

Update, 22nd August 2011

Click here or here to read about the blogger who chose to use his real name and has now been forced to give up blogging and use of social media due to complaints to his employers from Rhett Daniels.


  1. Andysnat said,

    I want a credit.

  2. apgaylard said,

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t hide his real identity in any serious way (though I do try and keep my blogging and professional personae separate) I’d say that I understand why people do try and keep their identities private: some of the nutters out in cyberspace are not pleasant.

    I also think that it isn’t a real problem at all when people make an anonymous, rational and civil critique. As you say, the ideas stand and fall on their own merit. I think that some of the carping is by people who don’t want their ideas scrutinised.

    My only sympathy with the criticism of net anonymity is when its used as a cover for delivering unpleasant personal abuse.

    In my experience some of the people who claim to be offended by such attacks are not above dishing some out either; which makes an appeal to equity dubious to say the least.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. Warhelmet said,

    Hmmm. I think Midgley has a point if you consider the nature of “Have Your Say” on the BBC website or similar things on newspaper websites. The anonymity isn’t the issue, it’s the implicit and explicit validation. It’s the institutionalisation of the quixotic. Titling at windmills is now the national hobby. I think that HYS et al are ultimately undemocratic – they encourage the opinion-fart, the counter-factoid. There is no real engagement, just turd spurt.

    Otherwise, the article is wrong headed.

  4. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comments.

    In terms of anonymity, I think my views on the unpleasant personal abuse are roughly the same as Carol Midgley’s – I just think that her criticism of web anonymity is a little indiscriminate. She doesn’t seem to accept that there are many valid reasons for people to blog anonymously. I think the key is that anonymous critiques should be rational and civil and apgaylard probably has it right when he refers to carping by those who do not want their ideas to be criticised. (As an example, when I (and others) criticised John Briffa’s blog post that referred to the MMR scare he was very interested in finding out people’s identities – but seemed less interested in sensible debate on the ideas that were being criticised. I’ve also noticed that Holford Watch also tend to receive comments from time to time questioning their choice to blog anonymously. These commenters rarely seem to engage with the substance of the rational and civil posts that they comment on.)

    Warhelmet – I tend to avoid comments on sites such as the BBC’s HYS unless I’m reading them via something like Speak your branes. I’ve just popped over to take a look at the HYS take on swine flu and this raised a smile:

    Stop talking about it and give everyone a vaccine.
    Bob, Cambridge

    Ah, the man of action! Well Bob, a vaccine won’t be ready until September at the earliest by which time all those going to die from this virus will have done so. Otherwise, a great plan Bob, why didn’t anybody else think of it?
    Andrew, Norwich, UK

    [My biggest beef with the article is probably with the laughable claim that bloggers don’t fact-check to the same extent as those paragons of virtue that we call journalists.]

  5. kelvinthroop said,

    Hmm. My ears are burning.

    So the mainstream media check facts eh?

    Ecept when their stories are about MMR, HPV, Dore et bloody cetera.

  6. jdc325 said,

    Three excellent examples there. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. kelvinthroop said,

    So who’s going to beat Carol Midgley with a wet slipper?

  8. Nash said,

    Of course what she forgot to mention is that working for the Tiimes she won’t have to pay the legal bills when someone sues for libel, even when it is an unfortunate truth.

  9. Warhelmet said,

    I always thought that newspaper “columnists” didn’t have to check facts because they are doing “opinion” rather than reportage? Very often, it’s “me too” opinion, inspired by the opinion of another columnist. Midgley seems to have forgotten that bit about reportage.

    Oh, it is obvious that Midgley doesn’t read The Economist. You don’t find pictures of columnists in there.

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