Tuesday, May 24, 2005

When is a journalist just a dirty blogger?

Answer:when his name is Bronislaw Wildstein

The top Internet site in Poland earlier this year was not one of the usual suspects - such as sex or gambling - but a list of names taken from the Polish National Institute of Remembrance.

As the British writer Nick Hornby once pointed out in his novel High Fidelity, men, especially young men, like to make lists. The favorites are things like My Top Ten Greatest Rock Albums of All Time, or My Top Ten Girlfriends, or even My Top 100 Things To Do With Blue-Tac. While women make shopping lists so as not to forget something, many men make lists to reaffirm their existence – a kind of modern day version of Descartes: ‘I make lists, therefore I am.’

But lists can have darker purposes. Think of the mania that the Nazis had for listing imagined races or perceived undesirables. Or think of Schindler’s list, whereby a name’s inclusion could mean escaping the consequences of being on one of the Nazi’s lists.

The mania of totalitarian regimes for making lists has survived those regimes, and has gained impetus from the expansion of the Internet. For instance, many web logs are just basically lists of things individuals like or dislike.

One list - in fact a list of 240,000 names of Polish people – was uploaded onto the internet in January and quickly became he most visited internet site in Poland.

The list – which has become known as Wildstein’s List after the rightwing journalist, Bronislaw Wildstein, the man thought to have put it on the net in the first place – contains names of those being looked at by the National Institute of Remembrance, a government body which investigates communist-era spies, informers and collaborators.

I have to admit that when the list was uploaded onto the Internet I wanted to put a link to it on our web site. My editor – who hardly ever stops me doing anything around here - said that if I did do this then he would do various and nasty things to vital parts of my personage.
And of course, my editor was right (for once).

I hadn’t thought the situation through, at all.

The list – and more to the point, its release onto the Internet - is one of the most controversial lists in the history of list making. Wildstein’s list doesn’t just include alleged communist spies and informants, but also those who were being spied on and informed about. The release of the names into the public domain has possibly smeared the reputation of many who are included.

Poland, unlike many other countries, never banned communists from public office after the fall of communism. They were incorporated into the new democratic Poland. Many got rich from getting hold of the newly privatized companies, and many are still in government today. If Poland had banned these people from public life then today’s president of Poland might just possibly still be working as a sports journalist, or something.

Many rightwing politicians think that this was a mistake and have been campaigning to ban these people, belatedly, from entering government or the civil service. The far-right League of Polish Families has suggested, for example, that today’s Third Republic of Poland should be scrapped and a Fourth Republic be made, without the inclusion of former communists.

For some time now they and others have been demanding that the list of names be put on the Internet so that everyone could see who was being investigated.

And that’s where the journalist Bronislaw Wildstein comes in. It is alleged that he - or someone working in the National Institute of Remembrance - copied the names on a disk and put the whole lot on the Internet. The broadsheet newspaper that the guy worked for – Rzeczpospolita – promptly sacked Wildstein, and he could possibly be charged under the Data Protection Act and other privacy legislation.

Now that the list is on the Internet, hackers have been entering the site and putting names in or taking names out. The list is quickly turning into a farce, and doesn’t really tell us very much about anything at all. As an act of journalism, this has not been one of Wildstein’s better ideas.

And that’s the thing about journalists that makes them different from bloggers. Journalists work as part of a company or cooperation; they work under editors and with other journalists. Bloggers work on their own and don’t have the external controls that journalists do. What Wildstein effectively did by unilaterally outing all those names on the web was not an act of journalism at all, but simply an act of blogging.

The list is about as much use to the public as me telling you what my Top Ten Types of Underwear are.


1 comment:

ambra_chiara said...

Bronisław Wildstein a dirty blogger?! You're a professional genius! ;-)