Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hoaxes and HoaXrs

As soon as I heard that Keith Windschuttle, as editor of Quadrant, had been anonymously hoaxed, I knew that an Xer dunnit.

A hoax is never complete until its “reveal”, a la extreme-makeover reality TV. If the hoax (or makeover) has been a success – and Quadrant publishing Sharon Gould’s, aka Katherine Wilson’s, article was definitive here – then it is hard to imagine the protagonist shunning the spotlight at the exact moment of their triumph. Imagine a cosmetic surgery subject objecting to her/his made-over face being filmed or broadcast, because s/he “is just too happy about it”, or “doesn’t want to make the show all about me”. The audience simply wouldn’t buy this, but would presumably suspect that the outcome of the cosmetic surgery was in fact much less successful than was implied on-screen.

As with cosmetic surgery, reveals can be admittedly vulnerable moments for the hoaxer. There will usually have been an unhurried, biding-of-time lead-up to the reveal, but no amount of preparation or rehearsal for the big moment can extend its pressured, necessary brevity. The hoaxer has only one “take”*, in the media’s eyes, to simultaneously crow in triumph and explain their motivations – if they stuff-up this intense-spotlight, seat-of-the-pants moment, then the hoax, even if technically “complete”, will fall flat.

Kath Wilson (I’ve met her, once, as “Kath”) had at least one plausible reason for choosing anonymity at the time of her reveal, being 9 months pregnant. Yet her prior form strongly suggests that she would have chosen anonymity in any event. In June 2006 I blogged on her strange coyness about the backstory to a piece of undercover journalism by Wilson in Overland #183 (Winter 2006). One doesn’t simply go from off the street to ethically-borderline (at best) PR-training workshops – while I don’t imagine that the barriers are that high, one would need to have at least a plausible fake or real identity as a PR professional.

From Googling in mid-06, I found out that Wilson had worked in PR, but was apparently not doing so at the time of her Overland article field-research. She doesn’t even say as much in her article. Instead, she purports to be a mere fly, or tape-recorder, on the wall for the entire proceedings, apart from one sentence:

I later learned that [Bernadette] Basell [senior partner of KKPR, a PR firm] then alerted [the PRIA’s David] Hawkins to the possible motivations behind my line of questioning”.

Ah, sprung during the workshop, or maybe even sprung bad? Alas, we do not get told any more, other than that Hawkins later emailed Wilson to either fudge or retract (you choose) oral statements he made at the workshop than seemed to condone unethical PR actions. We don’t even get a hint, despite what the above quote’s context suggest, what Wilson’s “line of questioning” was – i.e. was it premised on her assuming a particular identity? Nor are we informed on what basis Wilson registered for the workshop. I doubt that Wilson has much to hide, in this regard, but her silence is unsatisfactory (even for an Xer).

In the same June 2006 post, I revealed that Wilson was widely known about the Internet as “weathergirl”. Again, all this took was a bit of Googling. About the same time, Jason Soon of Catallaxy Files (from memory, with some outside help) triumphantly drew the same conclusion. I think that I was first, but in any event, I was loath to make much of this reveal, my own moment in the spotlight as it were, for reasons I will now explain.

Blogging, employment and anonymity maketh an unholy trinity, for reasons I pondered at some length five years ago. In Wilson’s case, however, it does not appear that there was ever a direct conflict – i.e. one requiring absolute anonymity when blogging – between her employment and her writing, at any time in her PR-workshop, “weathergirl” (c. 2006-07) or Quadrant-hoax (2008-09) days. Instead, Wilson’s desire for anonymity seems to flow from something more visceral. Here’s the final sentence the email she sent to principal hoax informant Margaret Simons, in lieu of any more direct reveal:

“I'd also like it understood that I have a silent number and am silenced on the electoral roll and don't wish to be contacted.”

The meaning is clear enough, but so is the subtext – of Wilson’s naively waving a red rag to the media’s bull. Predictably, an Age journalist – who must have known that Wilson was about to go into labour, and who more than likely had read Wilson’s explicit do-not-contact instruction on Crikey, “visited the freelance journalist and environmental activist at her home in Coburg” presumably soon after her real identity was confirmed on Thursday 8/1. Age journo Dewi Cooke then adds: “Wilson said she was having contractions and could not comment. She was packing for hospital” (same URL).

I find Dewi Cooke’s actions in this regard reprehensible, while regrettably explicable. As an affront to basic humanity, they far exceed any damage Wilson may have inflicted on Keith Windschuttle’s ego (a fact I’m sure that the man himself would even attest to, if he ever took the time to consider any human being born after 1961). From Wilson’s reveal-manque then, at least one useful, if unintended by Wilson, point has been made: Age journalists in general, or Dewi Cooke in particular, are gutter scum. Why aren’t Dewi Cooke’s ethics, like Wilson’s hoax, front-page news?

In a similar vein, although this time I’m not pointing the finger at the journalists directly, yesterday’s Oz finished its coverage of Wilson’s outing thus:

Bloggers on Cattallaxy (sic) [Files] yesterday threatened to reveal Wilson’s contact details to Mr Windschuttle”.

I think, nonetheless, that Kath Wilson has been wilfully naïve, in the past at least, on the practical reality of anonymity in cyberspace. I can attest that all it takes to make identifying leaps and links through Google, and nothing but, is a good vocabulary; i.e. the ability to usefully predict which search strings or juxtapositions will come up with a short, useful results page.

Finally, the generational angle I started on.

Margaret Simons opined (Crikey link, above):

Personally I wouldn’t have done this hoax, even if it had occurred to me. As a journalist it is no part of my job description to lie. But then again, I have other forums and I am not an activist . . . I have told Wilson that I think the media have so far treated the hoaxer very fairly.”

In case it is not obvious, Simons is a boomer-gatekeeper – i.e. a person both unused to a mirror ever being held up to their own ethics, and a person who, if bothered at home as if they were the story, would naturally have a suitable trump card up their sleeve to kill that story then and there. More specifically, Simons manages to parade about both her ethical purity in the whole affair, and her own cultural power in general (“I have other forums” and “I have told Wilson that . . . ”) and yet she never questions the obvious, glaring power imbalance between herself and Wilson. Both are apparently employed as freelance journalists, yet an invisible chasm somehow separates their status, and hence their end outcomes of writing and research. I can’t see any other explanation for this chasm other than that Simons was born in or before 1961, and Wilson after (in 1967, as the 9/1 Oz informs us).

Similarly, Age Op Ed writer, and boomer# (Xer, actually, see correction below) Leslie Cannold firstly backgrounded the Alan Sokal hoax-and-reveal: Sokal crowed that "the publication of his article proved that some disciplines would accept anything as legitimate scholarship as long as it 'sounded good' and 'flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions'". If Wilson, or “Sharon Gould” as she was then publicly known, had similarly crowed at her reveal, she could plausibly have uttered the same words as Sokal. Not that Cannold would admit any such equivalence though, of course: Wilson/Gould was, quite unlike physics professor Sokal, a “[non-]orthodox practitioner” and an “intellectual gatecrasher” (same URL).

I find Cannold’s distinction here bizarre, unless one accepts that anonymity per se makes the difference (which doesn’t appear to be her point). Certainly, Cannold can’t have known at the time that Wilson/Gould didn’t, say, have a PhD in the subject of the Quadrant article. (As it turns out, Wilson is not a scholarly expert on her subject, but even if she was, I don’t think that the hoax’s denouement would have been any different.)

Cannold’s subtext, of course, is that a boomer# in the field, aka “orthodox practitioner”, would never have to resort to going under-cover, like Wilson. Like Margaret Simons, Leslie Cannold evidently lives an unexamined, privileged life as gatekeeper, not gatecrasher.

Afterthoughts 12 January 2009

Due to not having Internet at home since Tuesday 6/1 (thanks Three mobile!) I didn’t get around to looking up Wilson/Gould’s “Diary of a hoax” blog prior to my post. No media coverage I’ve read has pondered the consequences of (assuming the post dates have not been manipulated) Wilson expressly telegraphing in advance every relevant detail of her hoax. I’d suggest that this itself proves that the gap between the traditional media (including Crikey) and blogdom is wider than at any time in the last five years – i.e. the former simply takes no notice of the latter. There's also the fact that the blog has one comment (9/1) to date.

Wilson’s blog also anticipates the Cannold’s Sokal vs Gould faux-distinction. Indeed, this very blog is more than likely Cannold’s source for the Sokal quote that she uses to oh-so-politely undermine Wilson. What livid irony.

#Correction 14 January 2009

Leslie Cannold has emailed me, pointing out that she was born in 1965. I accept that she is thus an Xer.

* Extreme-makeover reality TV shows may get more than one take of the “reveal”, although this would never be admitted, I imagine.

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