One of the great Irish comedies, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, was first performed in 1777. Its opening lines are spoken by Lady Sneerwell and her confidante, the sleazy tabloid journalist Snake. They are discussing the planting of some malicious gossip in a scandal sheet while ensuring it can’t be traced back to themselves.
Those opening lines go as follows. Sneerwell: The paragraphs you say, Mr Snake, were all inserted? Snake: They were, Madam – and as I copied them myself in a feign’d hand there can be no suspicion whence they came.
Today, of course, the pair would be operating a Twitter account under an assumed name. But little else would have changed. Anonymous backbiting was as contemptible 250 years ago as it is now. No one in 1777 was in the slightest doubt that Sneerwell and Snake were the villains of the piece.
If it's stupid or mistaken or ill-judged, it's my stupidity and my mistake and my bad judgment
I mention this because, in his interview with Sarah McInerney on RTÉ radio last week, Eoghan Harris referred back to the 18th century to give his operation of the Barbara J Pym Twitter account a heroic prehistory: "There's a long tradition of anonymous pamphleteering. The American founding fathers all did it, Edmund Burke did it."
Well so, of course, did thousands of Snake-like sleazebags. In choosing his ancestors, Harris remembers the grand figures and edits out the swineherds.
But he also glosses over an obvious fact of literary history: authors back then usually didn't put their names to their books or pamphlets. Think of the great writers in England and Ireland in the 18th and early 19th centuries: Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen – none of those great names were on title pages.
The willingness – and the ability – of writers to name themselves is an important marker of the development of an open society, of democratic discourse and of the public sphere. Anonymity was the norm for very bad reasons. Authors were afraid of being prosecuted (Swift would probably have been jailed had his identity been revealed). Women were shamed into not showing themselves in public. (Even the great Mary Ann Evans hid behind the male pseudonym George Eliot.)
Why would we want to go back to all that? John Milton in the 17th century taunted an anonymous pamphleteer: “You there! Who are you? A man or a nobody? Surely not the basest of men – not even slaves – are without a name.”
There are good excuses for being “without a name”. There’s a value in hearing from someone who is not a journalist but who can give a perspective from inside a particular field: the secret footballer, the secret doctor, the secret teacher. There are writers whose lives would be in danger if they identified themselves.
But for a political columnist working in a democratic society, anonymity is a betrayal. What it betrays is the implicit contract between writer and reader.
The resurgence, through social media, of anonymity as a primary mode of public discourse is corrosive of both personal decency and of democratic debate
Having a newspaper column is an immense privilege. It comes with a basic condition. As it happens, the privilege and the proviso are exactly the same – the ability to say: this is me, this is what I think, this is what I stand over. If it’s stupid or mistaken or ill-judged, it’s my stupidity and my mistake and my bad judgment.
This is called accountability. And it is what every political columnist demands – and should demand – of every politician.
Accountability is not optional in this business. It is the job description. If you don’t accept it for yourself, you have no right whatever to demand it of others. And if you don’t have that right, you can’t do the work journalism exists to do.
As well as the public value of accountability, there is also surely a private ethic of decency. Never mind blather about Edmund Burke – didn’t our parents bring us up not to be sneaks and cowards? Didn’t we learn that you don’t say things behind a person’s back that you would not say to their face?
I have to admit, too, that I can’t understand the attraction. Those of us who end up in this job are not, shall we say, without ego. We imagine that our names are worth something. Our employers think so too – otherwise they would not pay us for the use of them.
What kind of thrill is there in erasing your own name and choosing to engage in public debate as a literal nobody? Is there some kind of pleasure in slumming it down the dark alleys of cyberspace with all the millions of trolls and bots who value their own opinions so cheaply that they are ashamed to put their names to them?
The resurgence, through social media, of anonymity as a primary mode of public discourse is corrosive of both personal decency and of democratic debate. It breeds millions of Sneerwells and Snakes.
But it is also, paradoxically, a backhanded compliment to the power of one’s own name. Trolls don’t put their names to bad stuff because they want to keep them free of the taint of gutless spite. They know anonymity is a form of shame. Journalists should be at least as careful of their own good names.