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.)