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.”
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.