What if Katherine wasn’t Sharon?

Quadrant’s editor Keith Windschuttle has been held up to ridicule. Despite efforts to defend himself, the Sharon Gould hoax has damaged his reputation. But, strangely, some people seem to think the hoaxer’s reputation has suffered too.

Like the authors of the Ern Malley hoax, Katherine Wilson concealed her identity. The success of the hoax depended on it. Windschuttle needed to believe that the author was a scientific expert. He would not have published the article if he had known that the writer was a well known blogger, journalist and environmental activist.

When Margaret Simons broke the story in Crikey, Windschuttle’s first response was to deny that he had been hoaxed. Instead he insisted that he was the victim of "fraudulent journalism." It didn’t take long for Simons to clarify the distinction: "A hoax is a deception carried out, as the online dictionary puts it, for the purposes of mockery or mischief" while a "fraud is a deception carried out for personal gain". She made it clear that if it had been a fraud or it was likely to have "altered matters of high political consequence" she would not have remained silent while Quadrant went ahead with publication.

‘Sharon Gould’ also insisted on the distinction between a fraud and a hoax. When commentators drew parallels between the Quadrant affair and the deceptions of Norma Khouri and Helen Demidenko, she wrote: "Both Khouri and Demidenko received money for their fraudulent acts, and neither intended, to my knowledge, to be outed".

The outing of ‘Dr Sharon Gould’ was only a matter of time. Here at Troppo I wrote a post titled ‘Who is Sharon Gould?‘ I showed how ‘Sharon Gould’ had linked to an article by Wilson and linked to other bloggers who had posts speculating that Wilson was the hoaxer. At Gatewatching, Jason Wilson questions whether this kind of post is ethical:

What’s at issue is a very specific question: when is it right to publish details of someone’s identity, knowing that revealing this information may have damaging effects on the the reputation of the person concerned? This is an ethical question with implications for the practice of anyone engaged in publishing information. My answer to the question is: the appropriate time to name someone publicly is after you’ve had some solid confirmation of the person’s identity, and ideally this should be first-hand confirmation.

In the example of the Quadrant hoax, prior to confirmation, some bloggers named Katherine Wilson as the hoaxer in posts, or allowed her to be named in comments threads, or reproduced and elaborated on others’ speculation with a few careful disclaimers. In my view, the actions of these bloggers were either flagrantly unethical or disingenuously so. Had they been wrong – which was entirely possible – there could have been legal implications for some of them as well. I’m afraid I just don’t accept that a combination of Internet breadcrumbs and guesswork constitutes confirmation.

According to Jason’s argument, my post was unethical. Instead of inviting speculation about Katherine Wilson’s involvement in the hoax, I should have either confirmed that she was responsible or not posted at all. I disagree.

The reason I disagree is because speculating about Katherine Wilson’s involvement was never likely to damage her reputation. There are two reasons for this. First, many reasonable people approved of the hoax. According to David Marr, it "was beautifully done". And second, Wilson hadn’t cultivated the kind of reputation that was likely to be damaged by hoaxing a conservative journal. Even before the story broke she was a well known and controversial figure in the blogosphere. Wilson doesn’t pretend to be a straight-laced by-the-book journalist. She puts herself forward as an activist.

There’s no witness protection program for literary hoaxers. Everyone knows (or ought to know) how the game is played. You spring the hoax and then you either out yourself or let the hounds track you down. Either is fine just so long as you keep your sense of humour and own up when you’re caught. (Of course if you’re about to go into labour you’re entitled to some slack on the humor front.)

So what are the dos and don’ts for managing a concealed writing identity? The best idea is to learn from others’ experience. I’d suggest Daniel Lyons (how to) and Joe Klein (how not to).

29 thoughts on “What if Katherine wasn’t Sharon?

  1. This isn’t quite right, either, Don. Everyone — from Windschuttle down — is throwing the word ‘fraud’ around with gay abandon, when that’s not what it is. Fraud requires damage with intent, not embarrassment or profit. I’ve written about the distinction here (yes, it starts with a cricketing analogy, but the basic point is clear enough).

    /law nerd

  2. I think this is political fraud and does the left no good in gloating about it.

    What’s the difference between Howard and children overboard, and this political fraud? Or weapons of mass destruction? The actual thinking seems to be the same. Tell untruths for seeming political advantage.

    I wrote about this on my website (http://enpassant.com.au) under the heading ‘Quadrant and that hoax: the left shouldn’t lie’

  3. John – I’m curious about your views on McAuley and Stewart’s Ern Malley hoax. Are you saying that the Quadrant affair is different because of the issues at stake or are you making an argument against hoaxing and ‘culture jamming’ in general?

    ***

    For anyone who hasn’t read John’s post, here’s an excerpt:

    Back to the hoax. Anyone who has read my blog knows I am a member of the revolutionary Left. However I feel very uneasy about this deception of Quadrant. I think our battles against Windschuttle (and indeed against the rest of the Right and the reformist Left) should be fought with facts, figures, reasoned argument and mass struggle, not trickery.

    To indulge in subterfuge like this demeans the Left and devalues debate, discussion and action.

  4. John has a point. This kind of stunt is pretty undergraduate. I was an undergraduate when I did it. That doesn’t mean it stops being funny — it is still funny — but it doesn’t stop being undergraduate, either. It’s a quick and dirty way of making your point when you don’t think you can make the same point through ‘traditional’ channels.

    … And another thing, are you in the habit of ignoring comments that disagree with your position? You’ve mischaracterized the legal doctrine of fraud, I’ve pointed it out, and there’s been no acknowledgement. I’m curious as to why.

  5. Skeptic – I probably should have been more sensitive about this. I use a quote from Wilson that’s critical of you and I should know that you’re following this issue. I didn’t mean to open any old wounds. Sorry.

    Since you’re curious, I’m fitting this comment in between having breakfast and getting dressed for work. I read the first three comments when I got up this morning and decided to reply to John’s first.

    It’s true that I didn’t didn’t properly explain the distinction between a hoax and a fraud. Here’s the definition of fraud from Merriam Webster online:

    1 a: deceit , trickery ; specifically : intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right b: an act of deceiving or misrepresenting : trick2 a: a person who is not what he or she pretends to be : impostor ; also : one who defrauds : cheat b: one that is not what it seems or is represented to be. Synonyms see deception, imposture

    So where does this get us? It means that anyone who wants to call the affair a fraud can appeal to the second sense of fraud.

    But it seems to me that when people insist that submitting the Sharon Gould article is not fraud are trying to make an ethical distinction. If you were writing an academic paper, you’d start by stipulating a definition of fraud.

    If it’s ok with you, I’d rather limit this discussion to ethics rather than straying into law.

  6. “Whats the difference between Howard and children overboard, and this political fraud? Or weapons of mass destruction?”
    Err, like Quadrant readers you believe what you’re being told at the time until subsequently the facts prove otherwise? Happens quite a bit like being told about ‘Stolen Generations’ until you find out facts like-
    ‘There are now more than 4500 Aboriginal children in state care in NSW compared to 1000 in foster homes, institutions and church run missions in the state when the forced removals policy ended in 1969′
    Apparently they’re in the ‘child protection system’ voluntarily now.

  7. The US-oriented Free Legal Dictionary confirms (if any confirmation was needed) that SL’s observation about the legal definition of fraud is correct. However, the entry also says “Fraud is commonly understood as dishonesty calculated for advantage”. This appears to be the distinction that Gould/Wilson (if indeed they are the same person), Simons and other left-leaning types are making, while Windschuttle and some of his defenders have effectively relied on the legal definition (which is presumably SL’s point).

    However, the distinction is really a red herring in the circumstances. Just about all literary/scientific hoaxes, including Ern Malley and Sokal, would arguably fit the legal definition of fraud although unlikely to be prosecuted as such given that the intent is/was revelation and embarrassment rather than either personal gain for the perpetrator or quantifiable loss for the victim (although the absence of the latter would take the action outside the legal definition of fraud). It is unlikely that Windschuttle/Quadrant have suffered any financial damage. Have their reputations been damaged? Probably not amongst their usual audience, and most lefties already had a low opinion of both, while the general public doesn’t give a rat’s arse.

    It seems to me that the real issue with the Gould/Quadrant affair is not whether it fits some definition of “fraud”, but whether it in fact makes the point that Gould/Wilson intended: which was presumably to embarrass and even discredit them – although precisely to whom is a very real question, as I’ve noted. The problem with this whole debate is that few if any of the participants can honestly claim not to have strong existing entrenched prejudices, which effectively predetermine the answer they personally give (even if some on the left hold Wilson in almost as much contempt as Windschuttle and Quadrant).

    Speaking for myself, I reckon I’m just about as uprejudiced as it’s possible to be. Some longstanding Troppo readers might recall that I pursued the Windschuttle/Reynolds affair for a long time without assuming that the former was either the anti-christ or a white knight skewering leftist politically correct myths. On this controversy, I tend to agree with Hal Colebatch:

    To hoax a journal such as Social Text is something. To hoax a magazine such as Quadrant, a general-interest magazine with a small staff, which publishes articles, reviews and opinion on a great variety of subjects and which does not claim to submit its articles to learned peer review, hardly seems calculated to win any plaudits for boldness or achievement.

    It makes no point except the rather obvious one that small magazines depend to some extent on trust and cannot employ exhaustive fact-checkers. It is simply squalid and nasty in a petty, Smeagol-like way. Hardly a coup to boast about. It is a feat of derring-do on about the level of stealing books from libraries on busy days.

  8. BTW On the specific point Don is addressing in this post, I agree with him and disagree with Jason Wilson. A literary/scientific hoax by its very nature raises issues about the identity, credibility and motivations of both hoaxer and victim, and demanding that people refrain from published speculation unless in a position to prove it to legal standards is disingenuous at the very least. If Kath Wilson isn’t Gould she can always say so, and if she really believes she has been defamed she can sue.

    However, as I’m sure Jason knows, newspaper and blog publishers face decisions about whether to publish and take some level of risk of defamation action on an almost daily basis. Bloggers tend to give much less considered thought to it than MSM outlets, mostly because the latter are large, wealthy targets and therefore much more likely to be sued. MSM publishers make the following assessments before publishing a story with an evident defamation risk:
    (a) is the story legitimately newsworthy?
    (b) is the subject of the story likely to sue? and
    (c) if sued is the story “defendable” (which doesn’t mean a cast iron guarantee that a defence will certainly succeed)?

    Perhaps some bloggers would add an additional element (d) of asking whether the target of the story is a political (in the broad sense) “player” or someone of more tender sensibilities unable to defend themselves effectively in the public arena (e.g. A Current Affair’s slagging of the dole-bludging Paxton family some years ago).

    On the “outing Kath Wilson” issue I would answer these questions as follows: (a) yes, (b) no, (c) yes, (d) she’s a political player who can take care of herself. Moreover, had Wilson denied that she was Gould and threatened to sue, a prompt published retraction and apology would almost certainly have obviated any real prospect of legal action or any more than nominal damages with both parties bearing their own costs if she did. In the circumstances, Jason Wilson is being rather precious. Adopting the standards he advocates would result in blogosphere debate resembling what Jason Soon already reckons is the standard of discussion here at Troppo – the Pymble Pony Club. BTW is Jason Wilson related to Kath Wilson?

    PS There would certainly be some circumstances where ethics would nevertheless demand that reasonable attempts should be made to contact the subject of the story to seek confirmation or denial before publication. I note that Don Arthur did so before his initial post in any event. There is also a legal obligation to do this if one wants to succeed on the defence of fair comment (or political communication extended qualified privilege) if sued for defamation. However, ethically at least I don’t think this is such a situation. The ethical obligation arises if the nature of the story will foreseeably cause significant damage to the reputation of the subject. That isn’t the case with Kath Wilson, a point Don Arthur makes in the primary post.

  9. Adopting the standards he advocates would result in blogosphere debate resembling what Jason Soon already reckons is the standard of discussion here at Troppo – the Pymble Pony Club.

    I laughed.

  10. Any further utterly off-topic comments (e.g. trolling to attempt to derail the thread into an argument about Stolen Generations) will be deleted summarily.

  11. My goodness me, Margaret Simons is being mendacious about this whole thing. If a hoax is something not done for personal gain and fraud something done for personal gain (a dubious distinction anyway), then what the hell was she doing on Crikey breaking the story, making it front page news, and judging other journalists and bloggers as they commented on the story? She simultaneously gained from it (as a paid journalist) and cast herself as an impartial judge of the ethics of others. That’s extraordinarily hypocritical – and the only way she can escape her own definition of fraud is by insisting that she did not collude with Wilson/Weathergirl in any way. Well, it sure looks like she did.

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  13. TimT, your comment illustrates why I’ve wanted this to stick to the legal definition of fraud, rather than the sloppy usage that uses it as a synonym for ‘false’. Joseph Raz has written persuasively about what happens when legally specific terms get recruited for effect in a non-legal context, and this is a textbook case. Once again, the issue is not profit or embarrassment — otherwise, as you say, Crikey would be caught by Simons’s definition — the issue is damage. As Simons has already reported, Quadrant has sold out for the month, and as I know from other sources, the magazine has picked a heap of extra subscribers. If that’s damage, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

  14. I didn’t want to derail the thread but rather thought that ‘Sharon’ was tilting at windmills somewhat in the sense that Windschuttle is hardly the conventional wisdom or establishment. Quite the contrary in a ‘sorry’ world all about him now and for quite some considerable time in the halls of academe. To the extent that his challenge to the status quo gains any traction can only ‘emerge’ over time, supported by the facts of the matter to date and as new facts emerge. Sharon’s particular slant on an unrelated field of her choosing would fare likewise and given it’s fairy tale origins she quickly recognised the need to withdraw it as anything serious to say. Presumably she thought there was some establishment dragon to be slain, which only she perceives. OTOH perhaps as a footsoldier of the establishment Sharon was concerned that Windschuttle was becoming a nuisance or threat and his ideas gaining too much traction and he so had to be put in his proper place in the big scheme of things. Whatever, she hasn’t managed to deter one Bonnie Malkin and the UK Telegraph’s editors from presenting readers with an obvious puzzler that seems to support what Windschuttle has been knocking on establishment doors about for quite some time now. An entertaining diversion Sharon and Co but will it work on the UK Telegraph?

  15. Don

    You ask what my views are on the Ern Malley hoax. Are my views about not lying a general principle or do they relate specifically to the Quadrant political fraud? Or at least I think that was the gist of Don’s question. (Don, correct me if I am wrong.)

    My point was that the Left shouldn’t lie to workers or about political matters. I don’t see the Ern Malley hoax as either – it’s audience was not workers (and that may be the case too with the Quadrant hoax) and the politics if at all was subsidiary to the dispute, whereas Wilson is on political terrain.

    Some subterfuge I think is defensible. I am not necessarily fussed about pseudonyms. It depends on the context.I once used a nom de plume to protect my job and the ability to put food on my table for my kids. I am pretty sure I would have been sacked if my real name was used.

    But the identity of the writer in that context was unimportant compared to the issue – explaining from a radical left position why US imperialism was invading Iraq and why the Australian Government participated. In the Wilson case I think the pseudonym is part of the overall deception.

    One reader on my blog said, in disagreeing with me, that the hoax was not part of the Left. It was more counter culture undergraduate nonsense. That may be right on reflection, but some on the Left (or like Crikey – all over the place) have assisted, claimed or praised the hoax. They have made it a “left” issue.

    And I think finally this sort of stuff distracts and detracts from real issues for the Left in Australia like building resistance to job and wage cuts, evictions, foreclosures, global warming, furthering opposition to the Northern Territory invasion and strengthening the Palestinian demos. And re-building the revolutionary left in part out of those struggles.

    That’s a much harder task, but will be more more productive than stunts that are political frauds and essentially ephemeral and beside the point.

  16. I didnt want to derail the thread but rather thought that Sharon was tilting at windmills somewhat in the sense that Windschuttle is hardly the conventional wisdom or establishment. Quite the contrary in a sorry world all about him now and for quite some considerable time in the halls of academe.
    .
    In a war there is no establishment. Just an ever changing front. They’ve taken casualties. They’ve lost the ant hill. But dagnabbit, they’ll regroup and they’ll be back.
    .
    By the time this war is over there won’t be any history. Too dangerous.

  17. [Comment deleted in that observa ignored a request to refrain from derailing the thread by trying to turn it into an argument about Stolen Generations. Any further such conduct will result in outright banning from commenting. - KP]

  18. All this moralising about all of these hoaxes seems a bit much to me.

    Of all the hoaxers/frauds there is only one that seems to me to be in any way seriously ethically dubious and that’s Norma Khouri. She is a pretty borderline psychopath by the sounds of things, and was seeking to defraud some money and fame out of people. Still one has to say that she was an enterprising and entertaining imposter, not a violent one. And what damage has she done? Well in the short term, she’s done some damage to our sympathy glands. But I’m not sure that that is such a bad thing in the long run. It pays to be sceptical. Computer viruses are a pain in the arse, but since they’re inevitable, having bad ones around is probably healthy for the eco-system so that it develops means of defending itself against that class of mischief.

    Anyway, if you want to disagree with that, I won’t fight you, because it’s an intro to saying that I can’t really see the ethical problem with all of the other examples.

    Indeed, it seems to me that in seeking to centre this on high minded ethical concerns, a lot of people are being pretty pompous. I wonder for instance what someone like Oscar Wilde would make of all the earnestness above. It’s as if life has one register. We’ve all got to adopt the po faced seriousness of Dan Rather. We’ve all got to insist on some strict demarcation between fact and fiction, truth and poetry and all the rest of it. Well mostly those lines are clear. But they’re never absolutely clear. And it’s not clear that we should always be handed the keys to the plot with some hushed tone assuring us ‘this is fiction’/'this is fact’. It was Shakespeare, not some postmodernist that said that we were all actors on a stage.

    Life is, amongst other things performative. We play tricks on each other, we deviate away from literal meaning pretty much every waking hour. When two kids play fight they’re not fighting, they’re pretenting to fight. When someone says ‘Oh Great’ when they mean ‘that was terrible’ they’re conveying meaning performatively, ironically.

    Alan Sokal got a silly article published. And his having done so made points far more powerfully than a less performative means of demonstration. It created a data point around which discussion and debate can proceed. Each of these events has sent a kind of core sample into our culture and come up with a nice diamond hard anecdote, and the anecdote itself doesn’t end the matter.

    The Sharon Gould hoax creates plenty of things to think about and makes a range of points pretty well I think (at the very least we know that KW was an impulsive editor in support of his own prejudices and that seems worth demonstrating – performatively as well as analytically which had already been done), but Hal Colebatch arguments are not without foundation either.

    I reckon we should be grateful to all these actors on the stage (excepting Norma K if you want), for putting on an excellent show, whether one ends up agreeing with all their points or not, and whatever degree of sympathy or lack thereof one might have for those who were hoaxed.

  19. I wonder for instance what someone like Oscar Wilde would make of all the earnestness above.
    .
    Oscar’s notions of earnestness were, ahem, a tad different. Earnest was the Victorian slang for gay. Not that it matters here.
    .
    On topic: One of the reason I reckon you see so many ‘frauds’ is that there’s this preposterous notion of authenticity. A writer is compelled by some publisher’s notion of the market to pretend to be something s/he’s not. A recent episode is that of Herman Rosenblat who was, funnily enough outed by a Taiwanese blogger.
    .
    Thing is if the book is as good as people say it before the hoax is discovered why is it then so bad afterward? Going back to Oscar books are well written or badly written, that’s it.

  20. “Earnest was the Victorian slang for gay. Not that it matters here.”

    No. But anyway, for the record, it wasn’t

    “Alleged code meaning of ‘earnest’

    “It is increasingly frequently claimed that the word “earnest” was a Victorian slang code word for “homosexual”, making the title of the Wilde play a deliberate triple pun relished by his friends in London’s homosexual subculture. Patrick Leary points out that this claim had been been debunked several times in several places, most comprehensively in the Times in 2001, as reported on VICTORIA and the Oscar Wilde discussion list.”

    http://homepages.primex.co.uk/~lesleyah/factoids.htm

  21. Mmmm interesting. I don;t have access to the text from where I got the ‘earnest’ riff. So I can’t get into it, (OT so I wouldn’t anyway). But I’ll look up The Times article.

    Cheers.

  22. If anyone is ever short of a cheesy opening line for a Best Man’s speech, you can borrow this one:

    Earlier today, I was running around asking people for advice on how to make a Best Man’s Speech. The best advice I got was that “the speech should like the couple, Frank and Earnest.

    I laughed, and said “no thilly, its not THAT kind of wedding.”

    Boom Tish!

  23. Anyways enough of Windy and back to the REAL fraudsters – Ryan, Curthoys, Docker, Attwood, Moses, Manne, Reynolds, blah, blah, blah.

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