For around 45 years I’ve been broadcasting and writing in New Zealand. My occasionally forcefully expressed liberal/left opinions have over that time attracted both agreement and disagreement, approval and condemnation, sometimes deserved, sometimes not. Rob Muldoon used to refer to himself as ‘a counterpuncher’, adding that he always hit his opponent back harder than his opponent had hit him. I like both the term and the approach and readers of this blog will know that my responses to critical comments can range from reasonable disagreement to dismissive rejection to outright cruelty. I generally regret the outright cruelty and have been known to apologise for it when taken to task. But, whatever my faults, I have at least always put my name to my opinions. In those 45 years I have never said or written anything anonymously or hidden behind an alias or nom de plume.
There are of course occasions in which anonymity is prudent and justifiable. But the commonest reason for not putting one’s name to one’s opinions is not having the courage of one’s convictions – cowardice. And nowhere is this more evident than in comments on blog posts where opinions are rarely expressed under the writer’s own name. Such anonymity is still generally unacceptable in letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines. When a correspondent’s name is ‘withheld by request’ it is normally because publication of the name could cause distress or harm to the writer, their associates or family. Talk-back radio opened the floodgates of anonymous comment. Vetting of callers is nigh on impossible and token at best. The ‘seven second delay’, intended to prevent the broadcast of obscene language or defamatory statements, is beyond useless.
The boundaries of what is acceptable on radio talkback range from the anodyne to the intemperate to the inflammatory to the vile, the most rabid being temptingly good for ratings. And none of these callers, whom we and the programme hosts know only by what may or may not be their real first names, are or can be held accountable for what they say. Could anything be worse? Well, radio does not have the permanence of print. And the print equivalent of talkback is the blog and the readers’ comments which follow it. In theory the blogger can ‘moderate’ those comments and decline to publish anything untrue, offensive, gross or defamatory. But with the more successful blogs attracting many hundreds of comments every day, it’s unlikely that much careful reading, let alone judgement of their contents is involved. On the contrary, the writers of these blogs appear to regard the unrestricted freedom of their anonymous correspondents to say what they want, in whatever way they want, as a healthy expression of democracy.
But it is, in my submission, a democracy of the gutless whose commonest weapon is abuse hurled from behind the ramparts of their anonymity. Could anything be worse? Well yes. More contemptible by far than the anonymous correspondent is the anonymous blogger, particularly in a democracy like New Zealand where freedom of speech is limited only by the laws of defamation. Such lack of spine contrasts starkly with the courage of those anonymous bloggers and pamphleteers who are the advocates of freedom and democracy in totalitarian societies. Can I put my money where my mouth is? Well, perhaps not entirely. If you want to have a comment published on this site, you have to supply an email address. As host of the blog, this gives me at least some idea of who you are. I can, for example, write directly to you. In that sense, no-one who offers a comment on this site is entirely anonymous.
But most correspondents write under an alias or nom de plume. Though the more regular become familiar and in a sense ‘recognisable’, the fact remains that you, the reader of this blog, have no idea who they are. A few brave souls write under their real names. Those who don’t will no doubt object to being accused of not having the courage of their convictions, let alone of cowardice. They will think the accusation unfair, arguing perhaps that they merely wish to protect their privacy and are entitled to do so. They can rest easy. I don’t intend to change the rules. But I would be interested to know how each person who comments on this site without stating unambiguously who they are, justifies that position. Feel free.