Our online presence matters. In the digital age, from Tinder to LinkedIn, our digital footprint is now the most important first impression we can make. Who we present ourselves to be online has the potential to make or break careers, relationships, and lifestyles. When it comes to public figures, oftentimes, the very first location where this impression is formed is Wikipedia. Despite what your teachers may have told you in school, Wikipedia is one of the most commonly consulted sources of information on the Internet, accumulating over 5.4 billion visits to date, and is usually the top result on Google.
As the internet’s main source of free and objective knowledge, it would be bad if the neutrality of a Wikipedia page was compromised by edits made by a singular user with close links to its subject. Yet the Wikipedia page of South College principal, Professor Tim Luckhurst carries a bold warning: “A major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject. It may require cleanup to comply with Wikipedia’s content policies, particularly neutral point of view.”
The ‘major contributor’ in question is a user named Gutterbluid.
The name ‘Gutterbluid’ is regional slang, an old Scots word for ‘low born’, used to describe someone from the small Scottish border town of Peebles. Coincidentally, this happens to be the town in which Luckhurst attended secondary education, an experience he has not written on fondly.
On 24th January 2009, Wikipedia user Gutterbluid created Tim Luckhurst’s Wikipedia page. Since 2009, this user has continued to be the most prolific editor and curator of the South College principal’s page, from basic copyedits all the way up to more extensive modifications, to the article’s portrayal of the South College controversy that took place in December 2021.
The page’s only image, a low-quality photo of Luckhurst leaning against a wall in a suit, was uploaded to the page by Gutterbluid when it was created. Curiously, the Wikimedia Commons attribution details read: “Source: own work, Author: Tim Luckhurst”.
Gutterbluid has also edited other pages, the majority of which relate to figures from Luckhurst’s biography, whether that be his friends and colleagues, such as contributing to the pages of Andy White and Morwenna Banks (who were both contemporaries of Luckhurst at Cambridge). Gutterbluid has also edited the BBC Radio 5 Live page detailing Luckhurst’s achievements in 2009 and added a section to the Journalism School page promoting the institution Luckhurst founded at the University of Kent in 2011.
The case for Wikipedia’s warning of a “close connection” between the principal contributor and the page’s subject seems pretty clear cut. But how has Gutterbluid shaped Tim Luckhurst’s Wikipedia page?
Of course, Gutterbluid is not the only editor of this page. Wikipedia is a bastion of free and accessible knowledge and takes an open approach to editorial tasks. Anybody can edit it, so long as the community’s rules are followed; any conflicts of interests are expected to be disclosed, which has not occurred here.
Over time, Gutterbluid has contributed to and edited Luckhurst’s Wikipedia page almost as though it was a portfolio website, or LinkedIn, casting the Professor’s biography in a distinctly favourable light. For example, in 2010 Gutterbluid took the editorial decision to delete the page’s ‘criticism’ section which made reference to controversial comments Luckhurst had made about the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
This is most concerning to us when it comes to the section pertaining to the now infamous appearance of Rod Liddle at a South College Christmas formal in December 2021. Gutterbluid substituted “briefly stepped aside” for “stepping back from duties” as a means to describe Durham University’s decision to remove Luckhurst from public-facing responsibilities during the completion of an investigation. Gutterbluid also stipulated that only “some students were unaware of Liddle’s appearance”. We believe that these changes, whilst minor distinctions of tone, mark a break from a deeply-held policy of neutrality found on Wikipedia, and show a willingness to shape discourse to the detriment of free speech. By turning these acts into the passive, culpability is removed, and distance is placed between Luckhurst and the consequences of his actions.
At a time when the University is refusing to release the report into the events that took place at South College’s Christmas Formal, who has the ability to shape narratives matters. It is true now, as it has always been, that in the quest for Free Speech, the most powerful voices are the loudest. Those with means will consciously self-fashion, whether it be through commentary in The Spectator, oppositional hit pieces in the Daily Mail, or indeed, the epic highs and lows of Wikipedia editing. The South College fiasco is just one in a long line of examples of how speech is far freer for those with access to the microphone, than those sat watching.
Professor Tim Luckhurst was contacted by Palatinate, but declined to comment.