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Why Jim Hawkins’ Treatment Matters

By Dan Murphy

Jim Hawkins is a regionally well-known radio host on the BBC, based in Shropshire. He’s a fairly popular guy in his community, and clearly a broadcast pro (I listened to 10 minutes of his show from a few days ago. Show wasn’t for me, but he clearly knows his business). I suspect, like most people in his trade, he’s made a lot of charity appearances, attended events that are meaningful (horse races or holiday galas or whatever) to his local community, and done a bit to promote his show. More than most of his age and background, he’s also embraced social media (mostly Twitter) as a way to engage his audience. What this means from a Wikipedia perspective is that he’s a “public figure” who has generated sufficient “reliable sources” to justify writing a biography about him.

He’s also been unhappy about the presence of his biography on Wikipedia (the 5th hit on a Google search for “Jim Hawkins BBC”) for almost six years. Wikipedia’s response to him over all that time has been “Don’t like it? Tough.”

Wikipedia biography victim

The reason Mr. Hawkins’ Wikipedia problem is interesting is precisely because his experience has been so mundane. The horror stories of people defamed by Wikipedia are legion (the activities of Johann Hari are instructive. As “David R from meth productions,” he spent almost four years adding promotional material to his own biography, as well as defaming people he didn’t like, until he was uncovered thanks to efforts outside Wikipedia. Other editors have falsely reported people to be deceased, and still others edited articles to suggest people are serial killers.)

Hawkins hasn’t been treated quite that shabbily. His principal complaint is that largely anonymous people are using one of the most highly-trafficked websites on the internet to aggregate as much information as they can about him, both the true and the dubiously so (he suggests Wikipedia has frequently misreported his birthday). Hawkins’ discomfort stems from the fact that patrolling his own biography for falsehoods or defamation would be practically a full time job. He is not a prime minister, or a leading philosopher, a superstar athlete, or an actor who won multiple academy awards. He’s just a normal man who has a higher profile job than most, which generates a smattering of press coverage. The fact that a bunch of folks going by internet handles like “pigsonthewing” and “Malleus Fatuorum” and “Mjroots” get to determine the contents of the most prominent review of his life and work, with him having very little say in the matter, creeps him out. The fact that these largely anonymous people have more time to persistently groom his biography to their liking than he (also prey to Wikipedia’s “conflict of interest” rules) is maddening. He wants it gone.

And he’s right.

Any reference work should have a threshold of inclusion — and Wikipedia does too, sort of. But Wikipedia’s rules are so lax, treating newspaper ephemera, brief mentions in BBC promotional literature and the like as biographical “sources,” that practically anyone who’s been mentioned in the press multiple times is eligible for inclusion — notwithstanding that the number of biographies are forever expanding, while the ranks of competent writers, genuinely concerned with reliable information and the protection of fellow human beings from undue distress, is stagnant at best (and probably declining in real terms, and certainly declining relative to the number of biographies).

In the case of Hawkins, there are no academic papers or books taking on his biography as a whole and very little in the way of primary sources for researchers (he appears to have led an honorable and productive life, but not a groundbreaking one in any sense). His is the sort of life that his friends and heirs should recount, and the obituary writers in his area, when he eventually passes (hopefully a long time from now), should weigh in on. “Pigsonthewing” may well have a “right” from the perspective of free speech to comment on Hawkins. But it isn’t right in any moral or fair sense. Yet since the pig and his cohort know how to navigate Wikipedia far better than Hawkins does, because they are participating in an insular culture that makes its own rules, for itself, and generally have an attitude that outsiders can get stuffed, they wield the real power here. And because Google and the other major search engines privilege Wikipedia content their choices become the first and the last word.

Over the years, he’s reached out to Wikipedia. The website’s co-founder and current figurehead Jimmy Wales has taken up his cause, albeit halfheartedly (Wales flapped his hands at this almost six years ago). But Mr. Wales has little power over the community. Or less charitably is unwilling to exercise what limited power he does have. His interventions have accomplished nothing.

Hawkins, in exasperation, recently took to his own radio show and his public Facebook page and Twitter to complain about his Wikipedia biography. He still wants it gone. A Wikipedia editor, one with an appropriate moral compass, suggested it be deleted “for the benefit of the subject and the very limited loss the biography would be to the projects mission.” That call has been drowned out by a chorus of “you can’t make us.” Harrumphs one Wikipedian: “It is not for the subjects of (biographies) to decide whether or not they meet the notability guidelines.”

As things stand now, the harrumphs will carry the day. There’s still a chance they won’t — in this case. He may make enough of a fuss to be left alone in the end. Wales or a cohort may descend from on high to make one of their rare Olympian interventions. But for every Hawkins, there are hundreds if not thousands of others without the nous, the awareness, the bloody-mindedness to win their Wikipedia battle. Nothing will be done for them.

This reeks. To high heaven, as the Cousins would say.


Photo credit: © Kazmaniac | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


17 comments to Why Jim Hawkins’ Treatment Matters

  • Moonage Daydream

    Wikipedians are pretty much guaranteed to react to any complaints, however reasonable, by doing the exact opposite of what the person requests. If Wikipedia were a person, they would be a sulky teenager.

  • Mark Salmon

    Reminds me why I never use Wikipedia as a source….. far too unreliable, pretty irresponsible, generally speaking information at Lowest common denominator level… could do so much better!

  • Gareth Monk

    The real tragedy is, if you actually read the Wikipedia guidance on how to judge notability, Mr Hawkins really isn’t notable.

    His life story really isn’t the subject of multiple non-trivial works covering his life in depth – and that’s actually what the general notability guideline demands.

    The problem is not theoretical Wikipedia as evidence by the guidelines, it’s how those are being abused practically.

    People like Mjroots are the worst abusers. He’s actually trusted to be an admin on the site, yet if you looked at what he has to say about notability in all sorts of areas, you soon realise he really doesn’t understand what it is at all.

    It’s people like him who have turned the site into the world’s biggest reproducer of anything and everything you can find on the internet.

    Others like Colonel Warden can take it to a whole new level – this guy can write a biography out of anything – a half a line here, a Google search link there (not even bothering to read the results, just dump in the link!).

    This Warden guy once got a very serious privacy violation on the main page by writing biographies this way, linking a similar low-profile person’s biography to a tabloid trash piece about their far more famous sister. Nobody cared. Thankfully that biography no longer exists once sensible arguments prevailed, but the damage was already done by then.

    The problem with Wikipedia is not the guidelines, it’s the administration system that allows people like Mjroots and Colonel Warden to absolutely distort what they say to the nth degree, out of their desire to just write, write, write, in the venues where things like notability are supposed to be judged through intelligent and informed argument, comparing the guidance to the specific case.

    The tragedy of cases like Hawkins etc really has nothing to do with any deficiency in the site’s policies and guidelines as currently written. There’s just not enough people who will take the time to see that they get enforced honestly and with intelligence.

    The ignorant mob rules in those venues far too often – the desired theoretical model of consensus based decision making, where weight of argument matters more than weight of numbers, almost always breaks down in these situations.

    In fact this is especially so in cases like Hawkins, where the venues just get swamped by the activists, who would rather change the guidelines to be even more draconian and ridiculous, rather than point out the obvious – that as written right now they are aligned to their own goals.

    The biggest reason for the site’s success, the fact anyone can volunteer and get involved, is the exact same reason why it ends up being like this.

    So for people like Hawkins, it’s not going to get better any time soon. There needs to be a fundamental change that doesn’t also kill the site – in which case inertia will always win.

  • John

    It is not for the subjects of (biographies) to decide whether or not they meet the notability guidelines. Would Britannica allow this?

    • Hersch

      Britannica has an actual set of criteria for inclusion, as well as authors with real names who are responsible for content. Mr. Hawkins has nothing to fear from them.

  • Craig Finch

    Jim Hawkins’ antagonism towards Wikipedia is because he makes his living out of selling his personality (which is described on his website). An alternative source of information about him, however anodyne, “dilutes the brand”- gives prospective customers another point of view about the product. Given that “Jim Hawkins” isn’t his real name I’m surprised Disney (or whoever actually owns the rights to the names from “Treasure Island”) hasn’t given him a cease-and-desist, as happens to any commercial entity attempting to usurp someone else’s intellectual property.

    • metasonix

      And he has the right to sell his personality, given that our corrupt society practically encourages it. He also has the right not to be crapped upon by something claiming to be an “encyclopedia”, with no qualifiers before it, such as “celebrity” or “tittle-tattle” or “gossip”.

      PS: it’s funny that you brought up Disney. The Disney-related articles on WP are notorious for being controlled by apparent paid editors, very very closely. Just recently, one of them was blocked by that legendary idiot MuZemike, for “disruption”. No prob, they’ve got plenty of sock accounts….

  • DanM


    While I don’t share your ability to divine Hawkins private intentions, I’ll assume for a moment you’re right. Well, so what? Why should irresponsible people like “twinkletoes39” and “LOL6” or whatever be in the business of “diluting his brand,” and on a website that purports to be educational no less (there is nothing, absolutely nothing, educational about the smattering of facts in the public record on Hawkins).

    “Jim Hawkins” isn’t his real name? If you say so… (but that makes the wikipedia article even worse, if it were possible, as a “biographical reference”). Disney? Do you know how common the name “Jim Hawkins” is?

    Wikipedia’s standards, both as a matter of polices and as a matter of enforcement, are woeful. Wikipedia could fix much of the problem by adopting the following (never will of course because the userbase of defamers, obsessive compulsive “data organizers,” and 4chan-esque teenagers will never allow it):

    “No biographies on anyone who hasn’t had at least one independent book-length biography published about them or at least two in-depth biographical overviews (each recounting family background, childhood, education, and career and personal highlights and including the accurate birth name) in peer-reviewed academic journals or the quality press (defined as those publications with a reputation for editorial control, fact-checking, and accountability). No biographies on anyone whose “notability” rests on a news event (a spectacular crime, for instance) until at least 1 year after the event.”

  • Gene

    I’m a Wikipedia reader, and I just want to tell Jim that he needs to do more than make vague complaints about “It’s causing me distress”. You need a substantial reason, not just meaningless buzzword-laden whinging.

    • Oz

      “A Wikipedia reader”? Sounds more like someone from the Borg Collective — “You will be assimilated.”

  • Wikipedian

    If Pigeonsonthewing comes to you and complains that you’ve singled out his obscure Wikipedia efforts for your commentary here, will you delete it?

    The way I see it, there’s a small difference between Wikipedia’s article and yours – we allowed people to create a neutral biography, not an attack page.

    We’re within our rights, and not just legal free speech rights. I mean, when individual people come to us via radio or television or any other medium and imprint THEIR names in OUR heads, and expect to be paid handsomely for the service, and expect to have some influence even over what we think, then why on Earth should we not demand the small concession of being able to keep track of this information about themselves that these people have broadcast to the world, simply as a matter of curiosity or completeness? In the beginning we didn’t chase after him, rather he came to us. Or else no one would have known the name to type to start the article.

  • DanM

    “Wikipedian:” When this blog presents itself as a “neutral” encyclopedia type-thingy that anyone — anyone at all — can edit, at any time, for any reason AND is favored by google and the other search engines in such a way that every post becomes the top hit for every topic placed here, then we’ll set different standards. Tell you what, you get a “noindex” tag in the Jim Hawkins article, and agreement from “Wikipedians” that it will stay there permanently (and for the disambiguation page for “Jim Hawkins”) I’ll get the mods here to noindex this post. Deal?

    No? “Pigsonthewing” will just have to leave with a brief message in an opinion piece by me, Dan Murphy, a named and accountable professional responsible for the content of my articles.

  • DanM

    Sheesh. “tktkt will just have to LIVE with a tktktk.”

  • Just a wiki editor who !voted delete

    A significant inaccuracy in this piece is to describe “pigsonthewing” as anonymous, when his real-life identity of Andy Mabbett is so obviously self-published on Wikipedia. “Egotistical self publicist” would be closer to the mark than anonymous.

    Otherwise yes, this was far from a good day for WP. Jimbo was right, but wholly ineffective.

  • Oz

    Jazz fusion bassist Tal Wilkenfeld is complaining about BLP mistreatment on her Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10150696434008005&id=85716653004

  • […] semi-obscure and not seeking publicity, we can defame you until the cows come home. (See Jim Hawkins.) If you’re famous and actively seeking publicity, we can make you an […]

  • Eagle

    Ironically, the administrator making the final decision to keep the Jim Hawkins biography was Wifione, who was later banned for systematically slandering the competitors of his employer and falsely building up the articles relating to his employers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Wifione