Bob Wakeham: Pseudonyms: use sparingly

Bob Wakeham
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The first time I heard the word pseudonym was way back in the ’50s and early ’60s, when my father was forced to create an artificial byline in order to keep writing for The Evening Telegram.

Bob Wakeham

Being a youngster, I’m sure I had not a clue what pseudonym meant, or what the implications of the word were, although I heard it mentioned fairly regularly by adults in our Gander home whenever conversation turned to Dad’s work as a freelance writer and photographer for The Telegram; but, in the sharing of Wakeham family anecdotes in the years since, it has always had a certain significance, even a laugh, a slice of Gander life.

And, as it turned out, my father’s experience back then also provided me with a legitimate example of why, at times, pseudonyms are necessary.     

Flashback to the 1950s, and a story with a fairly innocuous start: an Air France flight was involved in a relatively minor accident at Gander Airport, skidding off the runway after landing. My father, an employee of Trans World Airlines, was off shift at the time, but received a tip from a buddy at the airport and then drove the five minutes to the terminal, collected his facts, took a picture of the Air France plane still in a ditch, and had his package of journalism dispatched to St. John’s for the next day’s edition of The Evening Telegram.  

Regrettably for Dad, an international news service picked up the story — a development that pleased neither Air France nor TWA. Air France because of what it considered to be bad publicity generated by one of its competitor’s staff, and TWA because of what it felt were inappropriate and embarrassing activities by an employee.  

And TWA was adamant: if Dad had decided that journalism was now his calling, that he would prefer to interview movie stars at the Big Dipper as they had a few drinks while waiting for their planes to re-fuel at Gander, and to cover senior hockey games, then he had better put in his resignation with the airline.

In this day and age, in this century of human rights tribunals, when it’s possible to holler for your right to spit on the sidewalk, Dad might have fought the TWA edict; back then, though, he had few, if any, options.

But Newfoundland ingenuity kicked in, and Dad and Steve Herder, then the publisher of The Evening Telegram, concocted a plan: Dad would continue to be the paper’s correspondent in Gander, but would file stories under a pseudonym, an invented byline, one Chris Inaway. (I don’t know about the derivation of “Chris” but the genesis of “Inaway” was a response Dad used frequently when asked a question that required his opinion: “Well, in a way.” )

My father was never caught in his clandestine reportorial role and was able to continue for the next few years to cobble together a few bucks for his items and pictures to supplement his main salary at TWA.

But it had obviously been a matter of practicality and principle, and the use of a pseudonym was unarguably required.  

Nowadays, though, pseudonyms are ubiquitous, as readers, listeners and viewers of journalism take advantage of online technology to react to stories, with many of them attaching a phony identification to their comments.

And journalistic organizations, forced to tolerate more and more unsavoury commentary (the nasty stuff ranges from racist and misogynistic to sick and twisted, and even libellous), are now debating how to handle online commentary, with the CBC, for instance, recently deciding to eliminate any responses submitted by people using pseudonyms.

And that has obviously raised the hackles of those who wish to remain anonymous in the world of feedback.

Whenever I’ve had the chance throughout my career to offer my views to my bosses on letters to the editor or reaction to radio and television stories, or when I’ve had authority over such matters myself, I’ve always argued that anonymity should be permitted on only the rarest of occasions. As I’ve mentioned here in this Saturday slot once before, I reinstated viewer feedback at “Here and Now” in the early ’90s with the proviso that pseudonyms were not to be accepted, no use of “Poisoned in Petites” or “Enraged in Englee” or “Delighted in Dover.” We did sometimes allow individuals to protect their identity if we were convinced there could be serious repercussions for the writer.

It seems to me, as I watch and read the exchange of ideas taking place about the use of pseudonyms, that many of the proponents of this approach to commentary sections in the media are using as a convenient excuse the argument that there might be dramatic consequences if their identities were to be revealed.

If you read enough online commentary, you’d have to conclude that many, many writers are using pseudonyms simply to spew vitriol and not have to stand behind their opinions.

I receive plenty of feedback to this Saturday column, much of it on the phone or face to face when I’m out and about. But there’s quite a bit of response online, as well, some of it submitted anonymously — a cop-out, in my view.

More times than not, I ignore online reaction when I spot a pseudonym. If someone attaches what appears to be a legitimate identification (even then, I guess, there can be some dishonesty), I read it, whether it’s a tongue-lashing or a slap on the back.

In a broader context, though, a context outside of my little world at The Telegram, I think the national CBC deserves praise for eliminating anonymous or pseudonymous commentary, and I hope other news-gathering agencies follow suit.

Although I hope some method, even if expensive and labour-intensive, can be found to determine whether a writer has a bonafide case to remain anonymous.

As Chris Inaway had.


Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at­



Organizations: Trans World Airlines, The Evening Telegram, Air France Gander Airport CBC

Geographic location: Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, Dover

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Recent comments

  • Say
    March 29, 2016 - 16:13

    Bob, if you feel our comments aren't worth reading then perhaps we should stop reading your columns. It's the readers that keep you guys working. That's a pretty snotty attitude, Bob.

  • John liarton
    March 29, 2016 - 14:02

    It would be nice if using a real name(or seemingly real name) prevented people from spewing vitriol. But it's not surprising it all seems to be coming from pseudonymous to someone who boasts about judging people's points based on who they come from rather than their own merit. It's vitriol when pseudonymous make points you don't like. But ad-hominem attacks and shaming the people you disagree with as cowards, well that's just "straight talk"

  • Say
    March 29, 2016 - 09:28

    There are a lot who wouldn't be able to express their views or concerns if it were not for anonymity. Do not look down on those who prefer to remain anonymous for they may have a very good reason.

  • Bill Westcott
    March 28, 2016 - 19:51

    The very first columnist I ever read with interest was when I worked as a young man at The Daily News. It was Wayfarer.. the pseudonym for Mr.A.B.Perlin. Political commentary during the Smallwood days was front and center. Later after I retired from the CBC I wrote a weekly column in The Compass newspaper out of Carbonear. I used the pseudonym Corner Boy. Interesting column this week Bob.I agree completely with your views on anonymous contributors. I always make a point to print my name whenever I make my views known be it good or bad.

  • BT
    March 28, 2016 - 08:52

    Mr Dunphy used his name.

  • Tony Strong
    March 28, 2016 - 06:47

    I have long argued that hiding behind, funny, curious, and odd names should not be allowed..on any forum...While I don't think we should only use the.. if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at a guide..but I do think that if you have something to say, you have to have the guts to say it, using your real name..Yes you may, and I do, get slammed for it because you didn't research all the information before opening your mouth.. but I'll take that, considering, of course, where it comes from...

  • Jerry Wakeham
    March 27, 2016 - 14:46

    I always wondered why my mom would call me by my pseudonym "Hugh Sleevene"!!!

  • Joe Anonymous
    March 27, 2016 - 13:53

    If I couldn't write any better than Wakeham, I'd use a pseudonym meself.

  • Dolf
    March 27, 2016 - 08:59

    So it was ok for your daddy to hide his identity to avoid being fired but a similar situation is problematic for the rest of us, is that it? You and others who apply the word "guts" to protect their identities are either retired and untouchable or don't have a relative employed by government.

  • Bob Jobs
    March 27, 2016 - 08:48

    You are right Bob. This was excellent journalism. I feel so informed now, thanks for being so professional and relevant. Great work.

  • Dr. Leo Marvin on Valium
    March 26, 2016 - 17:42

    "Dad’s work as a freelance writer and photographer for The Telegram" Your Dad worked for The Evening Telegram Bob. Not, The Telegram, and not on salary, at a tabloid, Bob, to be clear, and fair to your father. He was a contributing journalist for a reputable newspaper Bob, when newspapers had a bigger influence and social responsibility. Bob. "More times than not, I ignore online reaction when I spot a pseudonym." Where did that paywall go, Hyper-Real Bob? Richard Dreyfus & Bill Murray. Great movie. I support ending comments. What about Bob? You don't need to publish this comment. Anonymous editorials and Cheers and Jeers are good enough. I'm not a real doctor. Comments are sickening. End comments.

  • Roy
    March 26, 2016 - 14:15

    Maybe the media should lead by example and stop making editorials anonymous.

  • james
    March 26, 2016 - 10:54

    The cbc do not want any negative comments on the Fiberal government or trudeau and his mommy you should be working for the cbc

  • Don II
    March 26, 2016 - 10:28

    I agree with Bob Wakeham when he says that:"..many writers are using pseudonyms simply to spew vitriol..." Nobody should hide behind a false identity to spew vitriol,hate or to act as an online Government troll to attack anyone who dares to criticize the Government. However, people who have valid opinions and who have factual information about Government wrongdoing, unethical impropriety and corruption to report in the public interest should be allowed to do so by the media and to be protected from ever having to reveal their true identity. Without the confidential source, the pseudonym protected comment or the whistle blower, the media would have much less access to inside Government information. The public would never find out about what really goes on behind closed doors in secret inside the Government. It appears that the public does not realize or believe that if you criticize the Government that the Government will try to identify who you really are and will punish you. If you are employed by the Government and you openly criticize the Government or reveal secret information to the media, you will be fired. If you have a contract with the Government and you criticize the Government in public you will lose that contract. Unbridled use of power, secrecy and fear is why the Government is able to do whatever it wants, to whomever it wants, whenever it wants without having to accept responsibility or be subject to any negative consequences for being secretive, ruthless, unethical and corrupt. There are people in Government who want to stop other people for commenting about Government secrecy, ruthless behavior, unethical activity or corruption. The media should not create a policy which requires that online commenters be identified by their real names. Any person who criticizes the Government online risks being punished. Why is it acceptable for the Government to operate in secret and offline but whistle blowers and online commenters must be fully identified? In Canada, anti Government commenters and whistle blowers are witch hunted, tracked down, harassed, vilified, punished and fired. In the USA, anti Government commenters and whistle blowers are financially rewarded, treated as heroes acting in the public interest and protected from retribution. It seems that anyone who exposes Government wrongdoing in Canada is not appreciated and they are now being restricted and repressed by the Government and the media. Who is really behind the increasing effort to suppress free speech, oppress informed opinion and to keep the public in the dark? Requiring online commenters and whistle blowers to drop their pseudonyms will result in stopping all further revelations from the online commenters and whistle blowers who have valid opinions and information to report in the public interest. Oppressing free speech and stopping whistle blowers from exposing wrongdoing and corruption in Government is NOT in the public interest. Less free speech and less exposure of Government secrecy, corruption and wastage of tax payer money will be the result, if the media, including the publicly owned CBC, ends public online commentary or requires that online commenters must provide their real names on media comment forums. Anyone in the media or the public who thinks that Government information is now more easily available because Bill 29 has been changed will be sadly disappointed. The new Access to Information Bill does not expressly prohibit or prevent Government bureaucrats and Ministers from conducting Government business on their own private e-mail systems. Consequently, none of those private system e-mails and documents are being recorded by the Government information systems and will not be identified or retrieved by an Access to Information Request.

  • Me
    March 26, 2016 - 09:40

    It's easy to publish your name if you are a reporter, politician or s%#t disturber. You want the attention and can make a living at it. A regular Joe Blow like myself doesn't need or want the attention. If I had to show my name, I would make no comments. I don't need somebody at my door complaining about one of my comments. However they should be screened. Most comments are sensible but some should be deleted.